What Part Does Empathy Play in Leadership?
In Karen Armstrong’s book, the Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, she suggests that in order to be empathetic we must understand suffering. She leads us through a series of religious and mythological stories about suffering, grief, and sharing so that we might see how to transform primitive passions into a force for compassion. Karen states that imagination is crucial to the compassionate life, so that we might recognize our pain and aspirations and use it to open our minds to others. That recognition can become an education in compassion.
How many of you know the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece? When Jason casts his wife, Medea, aside she kills not only Jason and his new wife, but their children as well. As she applied reason to her fury, she concluded she could not exact her revenge on Jason without also murdering their children. What this tragedy points out is that if reason is not toned down by compassion and empathy, our reasoning process can lead us into a moral void.
Character-based leadership requires us to apply both sides of the reason coin. Leaders must be able to escape from their self-preoccupation and appreciate the plight of another person, as well as apply reason to the decisions they are called on to make every day.
Some leaders, in my experience, turn a blind eye to other people’s suffering. We see many examples of this type of behavior in our culture, our politics and our government.
- Banks loaning money to people who cannot afford to pay it back, and then turning callously away when they foreclose on a home.
- Doctors who harden their hearts so that they feel no grief when a patient dies.
- Managers who coldly terminate an inefficient employee, or impersonally lay off a loyal employee so they might hire another to do the same job for less money.
- Politicians who vote for legislation that ignores what is in the best-interest of the nation as a whole so that they might maintain their party line.
- Government that creates dependence rather than independence; does not manage itself well; and, takes away from the masses to give to the few.
Learning empathy is no easy task, and not easily balanced. It requires a leader to take the time to think about another’s pain or unhappiness, and all the private distress they may be feeling that the leader will never know about. It requires them to make decisions that take into account the distress the decisions can cause, ameliorate suffering wherever possible, and do what is appropriate for the greater good.
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