President’s Column: Reflections on Leadership and Compassion

Greetings to all from across the Pacific! Autumn is only a concept in Hawai`i, since our temperatures do not fall and neither do our leaves. We sweat through Halloween and keep our beach towels on the clothesline for ready use. This fall, however, was momentous because of the U.S. Presidential election. The many firsts of Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris are historic: Black-Asian American, multiracial, female, of immigrant parents (Jamaican father, Indian mother). Her words in a speech after the election was called for the Biden-Harris ticket on November 7—she may be the first, but she certainly won’t be the last—give hope for generations of leaders to come. Both the U.S. Presidential election and (on a much, much smaller scale) holding this position at the Association for Asian Studies make me think long and hard about leadership.

I’ve been reading 365 Tao: Daily Meditations, by Deng Ming-Dao, and was struck by a passage: “Those who follow Tao avoid . . . becoming the ruler, for such a position is fraught with danger, hypocrisy, and disappointment. . . . If they must rule, they use compassion as their standard” (p. 164). This struck me for two reasons: (1) the notion of a reluctant ruler; and (2) compassion as the standard bearer of leadership. I want to extend the second of these, because I feel that it can guide the moment for us.

Compassion is what binds us one to another. It is the fundamental tie that reaches out from the heart. Compassion calls us to action in ways that empathy does not. If you look up the word, you see how it is rooted in suffering and the strong desire to help another in need. The strength of compassion lies in the possibility that we are all sufferers of sorts. The word embeds “passion” within it, so that one who is compassionate is pulled by the heart. In fact, we are compelled by heart. Thus, if compassion becomes our standard bearer of leadership then we are active in reaching out and caring. We are actively kind. We don’t lead with compassion so much as follow compassion’s lead.

I want to suggest that through the pandemic, through the overturning of our lives, through the political turmoil not only of the past four years but of centuries of systemic, often racially based, violence, we need compassion. I don’t have the wisdom or strength to understand how to find compassion for the cruelest out there. I leave that to saints or angels, of which I am neither. But at the very least, we can hold on to compassion as our guide in taking steps within our control. We need to follow compassion’s lead in healing ourselves. We need to find the compassion to be kind to ourselves. There’s leadership in that.

There’s also leadership in taking compassion as a guide in how we deal with others. There’s leadership in holding a sharp tongue in check, in taking a deep breath and listening. There’s leadership in softening classroom demands when students are struggling. We are all struggling. There’s leadership in a smile. We are living through extraordinary challenges that require extraordinary means. My hope is that compassion can lead us all to better mental, social, and even professional health. I raise a glass to that!

I would be remiss if I did not convey some of the activities that are going on at AAS. As you know, the Annual Conference will be held virtually for the first time in March 2021. Conference Manager Robyn Jones and others at the Secretariat have been working tirelessly to ensure that this new mode of conferencing not only goes smoothly, but also productively. Undoubtedly, some version of online conferencing will be with us from now on—so I look forward to taking some lessons from this one in reducing our carbon footprint as we carry on the business that we so enjoy of socializing and sharing in the field of Asian Studies.

Changes are afoot as we launch our first ever formal governance review. As with many organizations, AAS has grown organically, which means that at times our practices have been ad hoc. We—the Board, the Executive Director, the staff—with the guidance of a professional governance consultant are all investing a considerable amount of time in developing regularized structures and modes of interaction that will help us best serve the goals of the AAS membership. Among other things, I’d like to develop stronger, more open feedback mechanisms so that members can communicate their thoughts and concerns directly to the Board. This is truly not an “us–them” structure so much as an “us–us” one. To that end, there will be town hall meetings at Annual Conferences, as well as communication channels for more immediate concerns (stay tuned for more details).

We might also consider Digital Dialogues as an appropriate venue for these communications to take place. This is already happening in terms of area councils (next up: Open House with the South Asia Council on November 13). This is one of the newfound benefits of our push to virtual interaction: it opens up possibilities that we hadn’t really considered before. And here is where we come back to the topic of leadership: I encourage you to engage actively in AAS by running for area council representative, attending Digital Open Houses as you see fit, becoming involved in AAS regional organizations, donating as you can and choose, communicating your concerns, sending ideas for future Digital Dialogues, and expressing gratitude where it is due. These are all forms of leadership.

Leadership takes work. It is the notion of shared leadership—that is, shared engagement, shared challenges, shared accomplishments, shared kuleana (Hawaiian for responsibility)—that broadens the base and makes our endeavors worthwhile. Thank you for all of your efforts. May we fully embrace compassion as our lead.

With aloha,

Christine Yano