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Modeling Empathy

We can model any characteristic we possess or develop, but the most important one to model may be empathy. A leader must be able to empathize with real people and not just serve abstractions. Among the most abusive acts are those committed by leaders who passionately pursue revolutionary social goals, but are incapable of feeling or identifying with the pain of a single individual.

This anesthetized condition occurs more frequently among men. In many cultures boys are trained to repress their feelings, and they learn this lesson well. Its extreme manifestation occurs in men who gravitate to power out of a deep psychological need to deny their vulnerability. By contrasting their strength with the weakness of their victims, they stave off feeling vulnerable. Fear of feeling fear shuts down all feelings.

Because these individuals cannot experience their own feelings, they cannot identify with another’s. The “other” can then be objectified and dehumanized, which sets the climate for inhumane acts to be perpetrated against them. This may not be the usual climate in which we live and work, but evidence of this condition exists all around us—in the daily news stories about rival gang gunfights, ethnic atrocities, and brutal civil wars. Someone is “leading” those acts, and others are following.

While most of the situations we encounter will fall short of these extremes, it is the follower’s imperative to help an “unfeeling” leader regain the ability to feel the pain of another human being. A follower’s most available and powerful tool for doing this is his own feelings. It is a mistake for a follower whose leader is shut off from feelings to allow the leader to become the model for feeling behavior in the group.

Instead, a courageous follower will model for the leader how to contact feelings and will demonstrate the difference between compassion and weakness. A follower must listen carefully to his feelings about the leader’s words and actions, and report those feelings to the leader as he would describe visual events to a person who has lost his sight:

“That scares me because it lacks respect for basic human rights.”

“I would feel betrayed if that action was directed at me.”

“I feel disappointed hearing you say that and I think others will too.”

“My trust would be severely shaken.”

“Real people will experience real pain if that occurs.”

“I feel outraged hearing you discuss people in those terms.”

“I would cry if I found we were party to such an action.”

Leaders who lack empathy are also chronically disdainful of others. They have lost touch with the actual conditions of the lives of their followers and the lives of those whom the organization serves. Disdainful leaders no longer understand the challenges followers face in getting their jobs done. They harp on lack of perfection and undermine the mutual respect needed to pursue a common purpose.

A transformational strategy is needed to increase empathy and bridge the gulf between the disdainful leader and others. The story of the monarch who disguises himself to roam among his subjects and find out what they really think and feel is applicable. Some organizations require senior executives to spend a week or two a year doing frontline jobs so they stay connected to the reality of what it takes to serve customers. Actually doing, not inspecting or critiquing, jobs at different levels of the organization can be eye-opening as to the skill required and the problems encountered. Disdain may rapidly transform into admiration and respect, or at least understanding.

Getting out in the field and talking to the end consumer of the organization’s work—the trucker who drives the vehicles the company builds, the pensioner who depends on the services the agency provides, the family who is counting on the insurance company to come through for them—helps restore the loss of empathy that success and prominence sometimes breed.

Courageous followers can encourage leaders to agree that they and their closest followers take turns occasionally doing frontline jobs. As we gain prestige in tandem with our leaders, we are also susceptible to losing our empathy for others, and must periodically close the distance that arises between us and those we serve.