Leadership and Empathy

George Mason University and Arlington Economic Development presented a panel discussion on Empathy in Business. It focused on empathy as an asset and whether this is an element of what makes a leader great.

The panel composition: Jonathan Aberman, of Amplifier Ventures as moderator; Carly Florina, former CEO of HP; Dr. Angel Cabrera, president of George Mason University; Julie Rogers, president & CEO of Meyer Foundation; and Bill Drayton, CEO and Founder of Ashoka.

Empathy to an individual is like great art…they may know it when they see it, but it is hard to put describe in a clear and concise statement. The panel’s treatment of empathy as a leadership asset was not woo-woo, feel-good fluff; it was seen as a powerful tool for change and engagement both inside and outside of the organization.

Key points offered by the panel:

  • Everyone has capacity for empathy, except for schizophrenics, narcissists, and psychopaths – most of us can be empathetic

  • True leaders will discipline themselves to listen first and declare later

  • Example: a situation gone bad and the leader is poised to righteously ‘instruct’ the errant person chapter and verse about how they screwed up (no empathy); instead the leader pauses to hear the person’s view of what happened – then takes appropriate action (empathy)…this can result in better understanding by all parties, but even if no new information is garnered, the person’s views were heard and is more receptive to learning from the error

  • Empathy is a diminishing trait in segments of today’s youth – as a society we must ‘teach’ and developed it in the children or face virtually unsolvable problems as the kids age into adults.

So, we can be it, can use it, and teach it…on an applied basis – but what is it?

For a leader, empathy is an ability to understand others – a willingness to listen and consider what the other person has to offer. It is not giving insincere feedback to make the person right in a ‘wrong’ situation, nor is it to puff up their self esteem just to win a smile or a brief sunny outlook.

Can a leader be both empathetic and strategic in running the department or agency to meet the mission and yield results? Carly Fiorina repurposed a concept from the 1700’s – enlightened self interest – to explain how individual input and financial results can coexist for superior outcome. This captures both aspects of the spectrum.

Being open to understanding others, hearing their ideas and offers, and responding with consistency empowers employees and managers to contribute ideas and be innovative, while truly engaging them in the success of the organization. The path is doing the right things and developing internal resources to produce better results.

In an open source environment, a person is invited to improve on what’s been created by someone and share the new version with them and the community. Leading with empathy is about modeling permission for employees to find and share innovation and improvement in your organization.

As business structures change, organizations rely more on task teams formed internally (probably not at the same location) and entrepreneurs collaborate with one another to create teams with needed skills and experience for the project. For both, the old silos which restricted sharing are replaced with creative approaches derived from varied backgrounds and experience.

Being open, listening, and adopting the best ideas truly supports an open and collaborative environment Eric Schmidt of Google summed this up nicely: No one is as smart as all of us.

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Dick Davies

A leader has to be empathic, strategic, and sympathetic to get the job done. Otherwise, no one wants to play on her playground.