Barefoot Compassion

Feb 12, 2016 1 Min Read


Why the heartbeat of followers is the rhythm of leaders

Enlightened leadership is spiritual if we understand spirituality not as some kind of religious dogma or ideology but as the domain of awareness where we experience values like truth, goodness, beauty, love and compassion, and also intuition, creativity, insight and focused attention. —Deepak Chopra

We often find ourselves discussing figures like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln and Florence Nightingale with awe and reverence. Understandably so, these heroes of history saved lives, freed the oppressed and challenged the status quo. These people do not stand out in our minds for their power or their might or even their intellect; but rather they are remembered for their compassion. These are leaders with heart—and conviction—for a cause bigger than themselves.

Insights from the expert

I had the pleasure of sitting down with a fellow Malaysian who found his calling in developing extraordinary leadership in everyday people. He has, through research and experience, carved his own module of leadership development that embodies fundamental values and traits that we so often overlook in our pursuit of success.

Alvin Ung is the Principal Consultant of Barefoot Leadership, a boutique consultancy that grows leaders who go the extra mile to love and serve their communities. The firm has developed long-term leadership development programmes that serve top teams of civil servants and government-linked companies (GLCs) in Malaysia and other Southeast Asian (SEA) nations. He is also the author of Barefoot Leadership which tells the stories of ordinary Malaysian leaders who are creating breakthroughs for Malaysians; stories that can empower fellow Malaysians to become leaders wherever they are.

Besides establishing a community of practice, Ung spends half his time conducting in-depth research in his capacity as a Fellow at Khazanah Nasional. Interviews and investigations into purpose-driven leadership across 12 countries in Asia has led to findings and case studies, which were then compiled into a book set in a Malaysian context, called The Headless Chicken and the Spark.  Prior to that, Ung began his leadership development journey as one of the earlier pioneers at Leaderonomics, the organisation that I am with now.

Ung on compassion in barefoot leadership

I define compassion as empathy and care for others. It’s central to our B.A.R.E model here at Barefoot Leadership—to build bonds, act, reflect and engage.

This model helps our team at Barefoot Leadership and our clients; to create breakthroughs for others.

Let me illustrate the breakdown of the model.

1. Build bonds

Build bonds within a top team to resolve conflicts more effectively. Step into each other’s shoes to feel what the other is feeling.

2. Act

In order to act effectively, you have to have conviction about the biggest struggles amongst your followers and organisation. Instead of undermining one another or getting into petty fights, focus on creating strategies as a unit that will lead to the best outcome.

3. Reflect

It’s important to have compassion for yourself too; so you’re not too hard on yourself, or too hard on others, especially in times of failure.

4. Engage

The ability to inspire and persuade others come when people trust that you serve their most important needs with love. Compassion goes a long way in helping you to identify those needs. Thus, compassion is one of the essential yet unspoken qualities that is so necessary for humanity to flourish and for leaders to go the extra mile.

Please note: Compassion alone is not enough; you need courage as well. A creative tension must exist between compassion and courage. Compassion without courage makes you a bleeding heart that pities but has no cause. Conversely, courage without compassion leads you to pursue an outcome with much energy but without addressing the greatest needs of your followers or organisation. The combination, however, enables you to go the extra mile to love and serve others. It’s the way of extraordinary leaders like Gandhi and Mother Teresa—and it’s also the way for ordinary people like you and me.

The extra mile

Ung shared five definitive components of being an extraordinary leader—conviction for a cause; strong and hardy character for longevity; energy for endurance; a compass to keep you on course; and self-awareness to understand yourself and then others.

Self-awareness is where compassion is most crucial, as being kind to yourself and understanding your stumbling blocks and struggles empowers you to empathise with the plights of others.

Ung said, “In the field of leadership, compassion isn’t often discussed. If leadership is cake, compassion is flour. People focus on a lot of leadership skills but without compassion, leaders can’t go the extra mile for themselves or empower others to do so either.,”

Leadership that lacks compassion makes it primarily managerial. You end up not leading or tapping into the potential of your followers, but making them purely functional or operational in their roles—like robots.

A leader can only evoke strong followership when he or she can connect and empathise. Charisma may charm many but most people will be quickly disillusioned if they feel unheard and uncared for by a leader.

Leave your notions at the door

“When you place people in little labelled boxes, they become lazy, slow and so on. What you believe is true will be true. However, understanding that this person in front of you is complex and rich with history, and being able to care about this, will enable you to be a better leader. Bias hinders compassion.” —Alvin Ung

It is easy to see Ung’s passion for Malaysia and for the people who serve this country: civil servants.

He believes they are profoundly misunderstood and often times misconstrued as unmotivated or ineffective and seeming to serve a political master. He says compassion for them has helped him hear them clearly and feel for them. He says the paragon of a civil servant is one who serves and upholds the rakyat—one who is empowered to lead with grace and compassion.

Going a little deeper

Ung knows the B.A.R.E model is an effective guide to self-assess one’s compassion, starting with building bonds. Ask yourself this: Am I building bonds with the person in front of me?

Ung challenges us to dig deeper than this. Listen to one another. He encourages all of us to invite someone out for a beverage and spend that time just listening to what they have to say while being aware of how the conversation is making you feel.

Compassionate leaders are those who step into the shoes of another and are able to actively listen without interjecting their views and queries.

So go ahead. What are you waiting for?

Louisa believes compassion and chocolate will make the world a better place. If you agree or just feel like airing your thoughts, email her at For more Consulting Corner articles, click here

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Louisa was formerly an editorial associate and freelance writer with Leaderonomics. An extrovert who loves the outdoors; she thinks change is exciting and should be embraced.

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