Empathy and Leadership

Do leaders need empathy? I think so.  This summer, I’ve been reading a book by Dev Patniak (with Peter Mortensen) entitled, “Wired to Care”. It’s about using widespread empathy to create competitive advantage. If you have empathy for your customers, you create better products and provide better service.

But what about leaders? Does empathy make for better leaders? Some of the research on emotional intelligence suggests that empathy is an important factor in leadership, but the jury is still out.

Patniak uses a great analogy for empathy.  He refers to the idea of maps and territories (an idea first put forward in 1931 by Alfred Korzybski).  A map is a simplified representation of a specific territory or geography. It removes a great deal of information in order to simplify the task of navigating from one place to another.

When we look at a map of a specific city, it enables us to get from A to B, without being familiar with the city, like a tourist. But to really understand the city, you have to be there, on the ground, familiar with all of the streets, the people, the neighbourhoods.  Taxi drivers often have the knowledge of the territory — which roads are closed for construction, where the traffic jams are at what times of day, where the great neighbourhood restaurants are, what parts of the city are safe.  Taxi drivers know the territory. Knowing the territory, having boots on the ground, experiencing what your employees and customers experience has to give you an advantage.

Research suggests that internally promoted CEOs are more successful than those recruited from the outside, and that CEOs who have industry experience are more successful than those who do not have industry experience.

The organizational equivalent of road maps include strategic plans, business models and marketing research.  The interesting thing about all of these “maps”, is that they both simplify and make rational an essentially complex and irrational world.  Generals can look at a map and plan the battle, but we all know that once the boots get on the ground, the territory often creates unexpected constraints.

While we need to use evidence to improve the quality of decision-making, we also need to have a deep personal, emotional understanding of those that we lead. Good leaders recognize that we need to balance the rational and the emotional.  We all need a deep understanding of both the maps and the territory.

It is all the more concerning that we are seeing a marked decline in empathy among U.S. college age students.  We all need empathy for our employees, customers and stakeholders in order to make the best decisions possible in an increasingly complicated world.

9 replies »

  1. You confused me with the opening sentence of your concluding paragraph: “It is all the more concerning that we are seeing a marked decline in empathy among U.S. college age students.”

    Did you include it to suggest that our next generation of leaders is potentially even more inept at being empathetic then our current leaders? Seems like we need a fix today.

    • Clearly being on vacation has turned my brain to mush. I guess that is a lesson about revising, polishing and editing a blog post — don’t do it in a hurry.
      Thanks for asking the question Steve. Yes, I did mean to suggest that our next generation of leaders need to learn empathy, but you are absolutely right, we all need to practice empathy, (and humility).

  2. It’s all good Colleen! I love your writing and you ‘proved’ that Thinking is Hard Word! Thanks for making me think and giving me the opportunity to interact in a thoughtful, gracious, and humbling manner! I hope you’re enjoying your vacation and I’ll keep you on your toes until you’re 100% fully engaged! LOL!

  3. May I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    I posted a link to your article in our
    Empathy and Compassion Magazine
    The latest news about empathy and compassion from around the world

  4. I am always interested in such topics considering leadership and empathy.Leaders need empathy even more that any other person cause if they receive it they will give it after that to their employees and customers.

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