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  • Writer's pictureSigne Jung Sorensen

Regaining Agency: Systems-Thinking & Compassion in Leadership





"Compassion is at the heart of how my leadership has matured." 

— Jessica Kiessel


In this conversation, Jessica Kiessel talks about her leadership journey and systems-thinking work, sharing her views on compassion. When we question our purpose, what reminders and practices can we use to regain agency? What support do we need? Jessica shares her wisdom on how to recenter and experiment when we feel stuck in a system like international development and social impact. She paves the way for how we can begin again.


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This article features in a series of interviews where Signe Jung Sorensen explores how purpose-driven professionals dedicated to contributing to a just, equitable, and sustainable world relate to the notion of "compassion". What does compassion mean and look like in practice in our professional lives? What opportunities, challenges, and tensions arise when we think of applying compassion? This series is dedicated to professionals offering their personal stories and perspectives.


 

Jessica Kiessel is the former Senior Director of Learning & Impact as part of the Strategy Group at the Omidyar Network. Before that, she worked as the Deputy Director of Strategy and Learning at PATH. After serving as Innovations for Poverty Action's (IPA) Ghana Country Director, she became IPA's first Global Chief Program Officer; responsible for overseeing the fulfillment of IPA's strategic plan and provided management oversight to all of IPA's country programs and strategic initiatives. 


Jessica served as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Samoa and holds a Masters of Public Administration from New York University. Jessica is also an artist living in Seattle, where she practices and teaches ceramics. She loves to be in nature, runs regularly, and spends as much time as she can in the garden.  


 

SJ: What comes up for you in the word "compassion"?


JK: When I look at the definition of compassion, it mentions sitting with suffering and acting in service of other people's suffering. Compassion should also be motivated by the desire to foster flourishing. 


I think of compassion as a verb - something we always strive to be. Compassion is in the "doing".

Given this, I associate compassion with being "loving" and being "in service of". 


SJ: What draws you in about compassion as a topic and concept? 


JK: I appreciate that compassion requires us to relate to others – and to ourselves. To be truly compassionate, you need to feel and be sensitive to the changing context of another person - you can't be at arm's length. You must be close enough and in communication with somebody to be compassionate and not just think you're being compassionate. 


At the same time, compassion also requires us to hold on to our own center. We need to tend to ourselves, exploring our boundaries and resources so we can help without harming ourselves. 


SJ: Where do you see compassion as a driving force in your career in international development?


JK: Compassion is at the heart of how my leadership has matured. As a young woman, I was in a leadership role in a foreign country. Even if I didn't intend to, there was a natural desire to harden myself to be "tough" and to fall into more power over modes of leading, which it felt that staff wanted from me. I learned over time that this wasn't a conducive way of being if I wanted to be effective and in relationship with others. A softening has come over time from getting closer to people and becoming more comfortable with myself. 


SJ: What have you learned about compassion in your leadership roles?


JK: I have learned that we must understand people and navigate change together. You can force through many things in decision-making, but they will eventually snap back if people are not able or committed to stepping in together in new ways. It's central to leadership to navigate the boundaries between my desire to move change and others' needs and contexts. Accompanying people in change becomes an essential skill.


In retrospect, I wish I could go back to earlier stages of my career and have the courage to do some things differently. I also wish I had played with power dynamics differently. While my leadership trajectory is common, it doesn't have to be that way. I didn't see many role models talking about compassion in leadership in international development. 


SJ: This resonates with many others I have interviewed in senior leadership roles in the sector – especially women. What do you think would have helped you in your first leadership role? 


JK: More coaching could have helped. I was figuring out how to be a leader on my own - in an environment where outcomes often get celebrated more than caring. My story is widespread in the nonprofit world. Unfortunately, we are learning the same things in silos - alone.


Nonprofits are often short on money for this type of support, so leaders often find their way alone, buying management books in airports, for example. 


I did have some background knowledge of management. However, it wasn't until the problem was right in front of me, that I understood what I was supposed to do. Coaching could have been particularly helpful, given how complex leadership challenges can be. 

SJ: How could this support be available to young professionals embarking on their leadership journey? 


JK: We need to fund nonprofit organisations so they can devote more resources to this type of capacity building. 


In the absence of funding, we can still do other things. For example, we can tap into mentoring and set expectations that we all need to make time to speak to young leaders about their journeys. We could make it a part of the culture of our sector. 


There are also lovely peer coaching models that can be helpful if committed to for even just an hour a month. For example, I was part of a small peer coaching circle that used Presencing Institute's model while at Omidyar Network, and found it to be such a powerful tool.


SJ: I know you've done a lot of work around systems thinking. How do you see compassion relating to systems?


JK: We can change the norms for good leadership. However, there will still be some rigid and resistant structures.


It can be challenging to practice compassion the way you'd like as a middle manager in an organisation. Sometimes you feel like a cog.

For example, I feel compassion towards my younger self, who struggled to show up in my values the way I wanted to. At the time, the pay differential between local and international staff was too big. Even now, it can give me a stomachache to think about the signals we were sending local staff about how we were valuing their work and lives. I would find myself as the face of organisational policy and approved budgets that I didn't believe in. I struggled to find my agency, to effectively move policy and reset precedence. This, of course, reinforced the hardening up I talked about earlier.


Of course, this makes one think about how norms can be changed – not just within the organisation but also with the donor and as a sector. 


SJ: Taking a systems lens, what do you think might help bring forth more compassion?


JK: For the international development sector to shift, we need to shift the proximity of decision-making. 


With donors, it's often people with little experience in a particular context who make the budget decisions. However, the person who feels the pain is the person closest to the problem.


We need the people making decisions to be closer to the people who are feeling the pain, the people who have a lived experience of the context. 

In a systems approach, it's essential to see yourself as part of a system, and we come to learn that, ultimately, the only thing you ever have control over is yourself. Therefore, we have to be in a relationship, and we have to work together. There is a lot of evidence at this point to suggest that decisions made from up high in silos do not often result in compassionate systemic results. 


SJ: We've discussed some of the challenges and internal conflicts we can feel working in international development. What can be done to support others who feel this way in their international development career?


JK: It's important to remember that most people in senior positions have felt that way at various points in their careers. 


It's normal to have a moment where you question: "Have I lost my purpose?". It's helpful to remember that, for the most part, we are all advocating the best we can across different levels.

Still, our positionality and the separation between levels can result in tension and disconnect between people who care about the same things. 


Particularly for early or mid-career individuals, I would offer the advice to:


  1. Keep mirroring your experience to senior leadership, even when it is uncomfortable. It is not a one-off job and needs to be communicated repeatedly if it is to be elevated as a pattern happening across the sector. 

  2. Create spaces to be in relationship and have compassion for each other – including with senior management. Everyone experiences suffering, so seek to understand each other's perspectives and to soften divisions. Otherwise, we risk becoming combative with the very same people we need to work with, which gets us stuck. 


SJ: What is an example of a tension which could benefit from more compassion in an organisation? 


JK: For example, a common tension in international development organisations arises around power. The narrative can quickly become that the younger generation wants to give away all the power. The older generation wants to hang on to power. In reality, the perspectives are likely more nuanced at both ends of the spectrum. By relieving the tension of difference, we can find opportunities to move forward.


SJ: What's an example from your career that you can pinpoint as "compassion in action"?


JK: At Omidyar Network, my team started thinking about how we could show up in our roles differently. We wanted to avoid the trap of creating a rigid framework and a compliance approach to strategy, learning, and evaluation. We also wanted to prevent elbowing each other in our day-to-day work. How could we design our work differently if we centered on our shared purpose and values?


We found a way to be more adaptable and have a fuller expression of compassion. We were particularly inspired by Aaron Dignan's book Brave New Work and his organisation The Ready. After committing to working in a new way, we became very clear and aligned on our team purpose and values, which complement and build on organisational values. Then, instead of declaring what we do, we asked: Given our team's purpose, how can we best serve the organisation given the current context? And, what does that mean for what is most important, as a team and for each of us, given our unique capabilities and roles? 


SJ: How did it influence your way of working?


JK: This approach led to a way of working that allowed us to be very clear about what was most important to us and respond more fluidly to what our colleagues needed without constantly updating a rigid plan. It required us to let go of a lot, but it meant we were working relationally, giving space for everyone to contribute and responding more compassionately to our colleagues' needs. 


To bring compassion to life in our sector, we need to have the courage to work in very different ways.

SJ: What do you see as a challenge in bringing forth more of these approaches which could help compassion flourish in organisations?


JK: The overall system of international development can be the biggest barrier. Its history is based on diplomacy, power, and paternalism rather than mutualism, respect, and compassion.


Many people and organisations want this work to be experienced in a different way. Yet, the system's dominant behaviours and power dynamics affect organisations and project cycles. I believe this can be changed. 


The time horizon for the system to become more compassionate is long. What can we do meanwhile? We do what we can with what we have. 

We can be vulnerable, trusting, and caring in our relationships. 


SJ: Could you give an example of that in practice?


JK: For example, when project funding is ending, a natural tendency is to feel bad even when that reality may be outside our immediate control. There's power at play, and both parties likely feel frustrated given how widely it's known that many short projects are not yielding the change we seek. We can all feel like cogs stuck in a system. 


A typical response would be to refrain from talking about what we feel bad about. Yet, the most compassionate response is the most humane: Raising the topic and addressing the pain. 

The impact it can have on people's experiences and on long-term relationships is significant. You can choose to be a leader that coaches your team on handling these painful meetings. You can coach them on creating enough space for these conversations and how to care for themselves and their partners as they do so.


SJ: This reinforces the idea that compassion requires us to face and be with what is hard. As we wrap up this conversation, do you have any other reflections on this topic you'd like to share? What are you curious about exploring further?


JK: Change is coming whether we contribute to it or not. It's a good time to remind ourselves that we have collapsed many times as a world of living beings. I'm curious about the pockets of possibility that change creates. How do we grow them? How do we courageously step into change with some optimism without being too rigid or resisting?


Secondly, we tend to feel quite alone on our journeys when we, in reality, have many more allies than we think. I have learned that most people join the international development sector because they have big hearts and care. We all lose our way, and that's human. I'm interested in normalising this, calling people back in, and making it okay to begin again. 


 

This conversation is based on Jessica Kiessel's personal views. They do not represent the views of any organisation that Jessica has worked for previously. She is currently launching a personal project called pattern making, an online space for people who are working to live with intention to share their writing and art. 


 

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