The Role of Empathy in Leadership

The most powerful way to use empathy is as a tool to better understand the people we work with, the people we interact with, and the people we are trying to serve. This will allow us to avoid the trap of “good intentions” that don’t produce good results, but rather strip away our own perspectives and reactions and really hear what is being said to us. Cultivating empathy – true empathy – is an essential attribute of the modern leader. But empathy can often be confused or conflated with sympathy or “I want to help people,” and even worse, is often written off as a characteristic that is inherent within people, and not something that one can hone and practice.

An interesting piece written in the New York Times recently argued that people choose how empathetic they want to be, and are generally more empathetic to people or groups they identify with. With that in mind, as you are practicing cultivating your empathy, it’s important to recognize if you are withholding empathy unconsciously because you are interacting with a person or group that is unfamiliar.

According to scholars there are three types of empathy – affective or emotional empathy, cognitive empathy, and compassionate empathy. Affective empathy is our emotional response to other people’s situation, or the feelings that are roused in us when we hear of another person’s happiness or struggles. Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, is our intellectual ability to identify and understand another person’s emotions. Compassionate empathy combines both emotional and intellectual understanding someone else’s feelings, but it requires a next step, which is, when appropriate, being moved to take action.

There are a lot of simple ways to practice empathy that you can do on a regular basis.

Active (Radical) Listening: One of the most obvious and sadly most under-used ways to practice empathy is through active or radical listening. This is listening with the intent to understand and to actually hear what the person is saying without injecting your own interruptions, reactions, or thoughts. When practicing radical listening, work on listening instead of waiting to speak. Catch yourself when you start to think of things to say in response and try to clear your mind so you can really hear what the person is saying. Don’t jump to give advice, play the devil’s advocate, or make excuses. For the moment, just listen. Eventually, when it comes time for you to talk, allow yourself to be open and vulnerable.

Cultivating Curiosity: Curiosity is a great way to expand your understanding of the world and work on your empathetic tendencies. Doing this requires asking real, thoughtful questions with a genuine desire to understand on a deep level. This also requires going out of your comfort zone, to explore outside your scope of reference. This could be talking to people you don’t normally talk to, reading things you don’t normally read, and going places you don’t normally go.

Finding shared identity and values: Empathy is very much about finding common humanity, about recognizing that in our own different ways, we are all just trying to get by. Even when you disagree with someone, trying to identify what values and identity you share will help you to find common ground and bring you closer together. In mediation and negotiation, using this form of empathy can help people understand where the other person is coming from, even if they don’t agree.

Even more than disagreement, there is also an important reason to empathize with your “enemies.” Oftentimes, assumptions and miscommunication lead to conflicts that don’t need to be. I was in a national security meeting recently in which someone said during a moment of epiphany “we wonder why single women with young children in foreign countries pick up their lives to move and join ISIS. They must be radical terrorists. But could it be that the current reality of their lives is so dire that joining ISIS actually offers an improvement to their current situation?” And many times that answer is “yes.” Rather than vilifying, blaming, or incarcerating, trying to understand the root of why a person is acting the way that they are is a good way to get to the root of an issue, rather than reacting to its outcome.

Empathy is the opposite of the golden rule – it’s not assuming that everyone wants the same thing as you and then doing unto them what you would want done to you. It’s listening and understanding what they need and want, outside of yourself.

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A Systems-Thinking Leader

An integral skill of the modern leader is the ability to be a systems-thinker. It is important to use systems-thinking when developing new policies, creating new processes, developing new programs, and addressing current problems and challenges.

Working on cultivating your systems-thinking requires stepping back and constantly taking a holistic approach, where you identify and map out the system you are navigating in order to understand the bigger picture. People, processes, and structures all exist and interact within systems, and it is understanding how each effects and influences the other that will help you to gain a greater understanding for an issue at hand.

This practice can be incredibly hard as we navigate complex and often times convoluted systems that sometimes demand immediate response, but taking the time to understand the whole context is often the first and most important step in intentionally practicing systems-thinking.

Systems-thinking and people

Systems-thinking requires taking a human-centered approach, since at the end of the day it is humans who create and must navigate systems. You must not only be asking questions like who are the stakeholders? But also, when making decisions, setting up businesses, policies, or projects, you should also be looking at the greater whole, asking – what would it be like to be a person living with a disability needing to navigate this system? A woman? Someone from a minority background? Someone with children? People from varying socio-economic backgrounds? Someone living with a chronic or terminal disease? Someone who identifies as LQBTQ? People who observe different religions?

Putting people at the center of your system analysis is a good way to make sure that they aren’t forgotten. It’s strange how easy it can be to map out a system and completely forget the people that the system effects. When you look at plans that are carefully organized but impossible to realistically execute, you can see where the people aspect of the thinking was left out of the equation.

Empathy is a skill that will be addressed in a later article, but it’s important to note that working on cultivating and enhancing your tendency towards empathy is a good way to make sure that you never forget about the “people experience” part of your work.

Systems-thinking and addressing problems

Our world has increasingly become one of instant gratification, creating Band-Aid solutions to try to immediately solve superficial parts of the problems we are confronting. But very rarely does a problem exist in a vacuum, and without thinking about how this specific problem plays into the larger whole, you are only creating, at best, a temporary fix to a more systemic issue.

To practice systems-thinking when addressing a challenge or problem, you need to both look back at the root of the problem, and understand the many different factors that contributed to its manifestation, recognizing that is a part of an overall system and did not occur in isolation. Then, you need to practice “emerging future” thinking, exploring different ways to address the problem as part of the system as opposed to reacting to a specific part, and brainstorming what outcomes those different interventions might have, both in the short and long term. By not taking this approach, you run the risk of short-sightedness and generating unintended consequences.

This is the first of what will be several pieces about systems-thinking, and tools will soon be available to help you cultivate your systems-thinking approach.

Practice: As you are either designing new systems (processes, policies, etc), create a map of the system you are trying to develop and the other systems that it might coincide with. Make sure you create as comprehensive a picture as possible so that you can identify gaps before you implement. If you are trying to solve an already existing problem, take a step back and make sure your solution has taken into account the whole history to what contributed to the problem and maps out the short and long term future using the proposed solution.

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On Love and Leadership

Fall in love with everyone. That’s probably not the type of advice you get every day, especially not when you’re talking about leadership.

I don’t mean fall in love in a romantic way, but rather, in a human way.

What does falling in love mean on a deeply human level? Love is a completely selfless investment in someone else. It binds you to them because giving someone love means that you genuinely accept them, value them, and care for them. It means seeing the greatness and potential in someone and having an eager willingness and excitement to be a companion on their quest to achieving it. It means trusting them. It means being genuinely committed to their happiness and wellbeing. And it means being grateful that they are in your life.

I’ve often been accused of falling in love with everyone I meet. I used to think that it was a flaw, a vulnerability, to be so open to everyone. And, in complete disclosure, sometimes it’s come back to bite me. But overall, I have come to realize that love is the most powerful of the leadership tools. It makes every interaction, small or large, genuine and real.

One of the worst types of human experiences is feeling like you are unseen and unheard. That feeling of invisibility is disenfranchising and ultimately leaves people feeling resentful and even worse, powerless. When you practice everyday leadership that is motivated by love, you allow people to be seen and heard, and even if you can’t necessarily do anything more for them at that moment, holding people in that space and giving them that recognition is one of the most powerful things that you can do.

The love you give doesn’t necessarily need to be an everlasting love, or even reciprocated love. It can range from the love that you give the waiter who is serving your food or the IT person on the phone to your management style with your colleagues to the way you interact with your friends. But recognizing and being mindful of the way that people experience you is one of the most important lessons in emotional intelligence.

Giving love also means giving people the benefit of the doubt, recognizing that we are all just trying to get by, and when someone fails or falters, rather than chastising them, you can use a love approach to try and understand why and help lift them up instead of kick them when they are already down.

I could write about all of the studied and proven financial incentives to incorporate love into leadership – it encourages productivity, makes people more effective and committed to the cause, makes them feel believed in and invested in and therefore motivated to work hard, creates equality even in hierarchy. All of this is true, and if you need an economic argument, there’s a lot to back it up, but right now I am coming at this from a values and human-centered approach.

I want you to close your eyes and imagine how it would feel if you gave love to everyone in your life. And imagine if you felt loved by everyone who you worked with an interacted with in return. How would that change your human experience? How would it change theirs? And ultimately, what affect would instilling this type of universal sentiment have on the world? I know I am saying this at the risk of sounding idealistic at best and cheesy at worst, but everyone is looking for an authentic connection, and in this alienating age of money and technology where we have become increasingly engrossed with our bottom lines and smart phones instead of our present reality, don’t forget the value in saying “I see you, I hear you, I value you, I love you.” And fall in love with everyone!

Practicing leadership motivated by love: Let your guard down. Approach every person with excitement about their potential. See and believe in their greatness, even before they have had a chance to prove it to you. Recognize if you are being skeptical or making assumptions and put them out of your mind. Give them your attention and your heart during the time that you are with them, and focus on being present with them.

If going to a place of love seems abstract or inaccessible to you at the moment, think about approaching everyone with openness, curiosity, inclusiveness, gratitude and an investment in their success.

A Human-Centered Approach to Leadership

You may have heard of Human-Centered Design, an idea made popular by the design firm IDEO, among others, and beginning to gain mainstream traction, especially in the innovation space. The idea is that you put the human at the center of whatever it is you are designing, because after all, they are the users and ones you are supposedly designing for. In order to succeed in truly human-centered thinking, you need to take an ethnographic, anthropological approach, spending time getting to understand the needs of the people you are designing for, and developing something that is useful and makes practical sense based on your investigation and observation.

Being a human-centered thinker is at the core of modern leadership. This might seem obvious, or that it should be intuitive, but often times, the humans being served are the last to be thought about.

To help illustrate exactly what human-centered thinking is, let’s start with a design example – how many times have you used a product or tried to navigate a building and thought to yourself, “who did they design this for?” Maybe it’s a package that is insanely difficult to open, or a shelf that was installed too high for any normal-sized person to actually reach. This particular design story is about the mop. Yes, your good ol’ household cleaning mop. Think about the terrible impracticality of a mop – you need to lug around a bucket of water in order for the mop to be useful, which quickly becomes dirty water that you end up spreading all over the floor. If you are putting the user at the center of the mop experience, the mop is an irritating, at best, cleaning appliance – it is cumbersome, messy, frustrating and inefficient.

Continuum, a design firm, had consultants spend time watching mop users in their homes. They stood in corners and observed as people lugged around soppy mops and spilling water buckets. They thought about what they could design that would serve the same purpose but be more efficient and make the users life easier. And after hundreds of hours of observing and iterating, the Swiffer was born.

You might be thinking that this approach makes sense when designing products, but how does that translate into anything outside user experience? IDEO and Marie Stopes International teamed up to take design thinking and apply it to educating young women on sexual and reproductive health. They realized that instead of trying to do outreach on their terms – teaching classes in schools or in health clinics, where they were normally done – they needed to understand what would be most accessible to the youth they were trying to reach. They created pop-up nail salons and teen speak-easies that were fun and unthreatening, training college-aged women on how to be sexual and reproductive health teachers and advocates to the teens who came to these facilities.

So how do you translate this into a human-centered approach to leadership? The above are tangible examples of taking a human-centered approach, but hopefully they illustrate what the concept means as we begin to move into the more abstract – human-centered thinking as a day-to-day skill and quality of the modern leader.

Taking a human-centered approach requires engaging a toolkit of soft leadership skills, including deep listening, empathy, curiosity, and openness. It is about recognizing the potential of every person that you interact with and engaging with them as a thought partner who has intrinsic value.  When you are thinking about developing your leadership philosophy and practice – think about the people who you touch, who are around you – how do you interact with them? Are they at the core of your decision making?

By using a human-centered approach as the core of your leadership philosophy, you are developing yourself as a leader who is accessible, who celebrates diversity in people and thoughts, who welcomes opposing viewpoints and is flexible and open to change, and who respects and values every person who you interact with. It is leaders who engage in this type of thinking who will be able to shape the emerging future.

Practice a human-centered approach: Clear your mind, open your heart, and be intentionally and mindfully present with each person you interact with today. When you catch yourself making judgments, dismissing people, or going through your regular motions, remind yourself that you are practicing your human-centeredness today.

The Tenets of a Modern Leader

There is a lot of hype around leadership these days. Most institutions have some sort of leadership training, articles are published regularly about different facets of leadership, many self-help and life coach sites are devoted to developing people as leaders – it’s the new buzz word. But there isn’t a cohesive message amongst these different mediums about what being a leader actually means, what it entails, and what a global vision and definition of the modern leader is. This site is meant to provide a definition of leadership, set expectations for what it means to be a modern leader, and to equip everyone with the tools they need to be a successful leader.

Leadership is a state of mind, not a status or a title. You can be a leader at any stage of your career, any position within an organization, and even as an individual as you go through your daily life. Leadership is a set of skills and qualities that you need to hone and intentionally practice on a daily basis, it is an iterative and constantly evolving process for every individual. It is the constant commitment to development of yourself, of others and of the world around you.

Leadership is a personal philosophy, and it is internal as much as it is external and involves the emotional as much as it does the intellectual. The skills of the modern leader include authenticity, empathy, emotional intelligence, curiosity, loving kindness, openness, gratitude, human-centered approaches, collaborative, social awareness, transparency and commitment to sustainability. This site will be dedicated to breaking down all the different qualities and skills necessary to be a great, modern leader, along with practices you can work on to hone those skills.