Empathy & Leadership

A couple of years ago I completed a qualification in leadership and management as part of my continuing professional development. I loved the course, met some brilliant people and learnt a lot. At the time, I was not in a position of leadership but was hoping that I might get the chance to move in that direction. I had previously held leadership positions but I’d always sort of fallen into them and always felt a little fraudulent having that kind of responsibility. I was always convinced there must be someone better qualified, more experienced or just indefinably ‘better’ in some way.

I’ve never been a front and centre kind of leader. Leading from the front, quite frankly, terrifies me. I always feel more comfortable with what I have heard referred to as servant leadership. Leading from within. I find it an interesting and beautiful concept: that you don’t have to hold a formal position of leadership in order to be a leader. In fact, many of the best leaders I have known have been people who have guided and motivated the people around them, not from a position of authority but from a place of partnership. Don’t get me wrong, that authority is important. Formal leadership roles are necessary and useful. But anybody can be a leader and you don’t have to get that promotion to do it. Lead by example. Embody what you want to see achieved. Lead through supportiveness. Encourage those around you to pursue excellence. Lead through openness. Embrace opportunities and open them up to others. Leading in this way is hugely rewarding and, if you want to step into more formal positions of leadership, can help you demonstrate your leadership potential and develop and exercise some of the skills that help to make a great, authoritative leader.

In my own leadership journey, I not only came to understand and embrace this notion of leadership from within but I also came to recognise how easily we become critical of our leaders. Of course, it is important to have leaders we feel we can trust, who we feel will deliver on promises or who will simply respond in the way we feel is most effective. But that’s just the thing, isn’t it: the way WE feel is most effective is not always the way everybody or even anybody else will think is most effective. And we are so quick to jump in with criticisms when our leaders don’t do things the way we would have. We so easily forget that we usually don’t have all the relevant information. We so readily pass the blame when things go wrong. We so quickly forget that they too are human, and will inevitably make mistakes.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not for a moment saying that leaders should not be held to account: of course they should. But I can’t help but feel we could do it with a little more empathy. Rather than allowing our frustrations and judgements to bubble over into something vitriolic, we could take a moment to step back and acknowledge the complex and delicate balancing acts involved in leading. The many stakeholders there are to please or appease. The many, varied and sometimes unfathomable implications of the decisions leaders have to make. The unavoidable truth that in leadership there is always going to be someone who is unhappy with the decision or outcome.

We don’t have to like every (or any!) decision made by people we encounter in leadership.

We don’t have to nod along and sit placidly by if we disagree.

But we also don’t have to lambast them. We don’t have to forget that they are human too. We don’t have to lose our empathy.

This, of course, can be easier said than done. When we consider that a leader can be anyone from the person who organises the cake rota at the local community centre to a world leader with responsibility for armed forces, it’s understandable that we might be inclined to treat some with more empathy and respect than others. I can certainly think of one or two leaders who, if I were to meet them in person, I would struggle not to launch into an angry, profanity laced tirade about their ineptitude or lack of compassion. But then, if I am going see myself as a leader – whatever my position – if I am going to lead by example, through supportiveness and openness, would that angry tirade be the example I want to lead by? And furthermore, if people were to fundamentally disagree with my leadership decisions – as will undoubtedly happen – would I want them to address this through an angry, profanity laced tirade? No. Of course not. It is unproductive and only further removes empathy and humanity from a situation potentially already lacking compassion.

Disagreement is good: it allows a situation to be considered from different angles.

Challenging and criticising leadership where we see problems is good: it keeps leaders accountable and checks abuse of power.

But disagreement, challenge and criticism need empathy to be truly effective. And if we respond to leaders with empathy maybe we’ll see more leaders respond – and lead – in kind.

I wrote this poem some time ago when I was first beginning to think about
what it meant to be a leader. I was reflecting on the many meetings I had
sat through, listening to muttered grumbles - mine and others' - and 
perhaps been unjustly judgmental of whichever leader happened to be in
front of me because I was bored or tired or frustrated or just disagreed
with them.

In writing this, I was trying to explore both sides of the story: the 
leader and the led. The experiences described at the beginning of the 
poem could easily belong to either.

It's raw and unedited but it seemed apt for this post:

I am surrounded by a sussuration of sighs
And whispered words
As the seconds vibrate onwards:
The restless, dragging minutes
Wringing out the deepest aches of my mind
And squeezing front and centre
Until that dull pounding pain
Pushes all else aside.
Information overload.
Too much of this,
Not enough of that.
Common sense and communication
Out the broken window,
Which we asked to be fixed months ago.
Hit the ground running,
We're already collapsing,
So quick to judge and
Not always eager to please.
It's easy to point
And roll your eyes
And mock and moan and mumble
Curses under your breath,
To pontificate on "it would be better if"
Or "why didn't they think of..." that
Or "same old sodding story"
When you're not the one
Standing up there
Alone
Trying to convince the reluctant crowds to follow.


8 thoughts on “Empathy & Leadership

  1. I agree with this “We don’t have to like every (or any!) decision made by people we encounter in leadership”. I think disagreement is great if it followed by something positive or something that could make the situation, idea, or method better.

  2. Empathy is such a key component of leadership which is often overlooked ! The point about empathy is to connect more meaningfully which can be so powerful in persuading and difusing potent emotions. This is crucial in any form of communciation and especially when giving feedback. Thanks for sharing !

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