Why Empathy Makes a Leader

As I sat here trying to decide what I was going to write about today, my mind raced over all of the leadership articles I have read recently and all of the ways I have applied those tools to all the various areas of my life. From actively listening, with which I seem to remain in a learning curve; to cognitive dissonance, which I can’t seem to stop fooling myself long enough to see where I have utilized that little ditty of a tool; to understanding the different types of leaders that are out there and whether one type is better or worse.

English: A male House Sparrow (Passer domestic...

So many topics to write about, and so little time to do it in. My mind raced over the options and suddenly there was a sparrow flying through the house as fast as my mind flew from topic to topic, and just about as frantically.

Yes, there was a bird in my home. As I don’t own a bird this certainly was cause for a moment away from my computer and my jumbled thoughts.

I opened the door for this little fellow and sat back down to watch for a moment. Then, I remembered an article I read the other day about a woman and a mockingbird.

A student of a leadership training class wrote the article and in it, she related her lessons to a situation she had involving a very loud bird in her yard, and how her training helped her to come to a resolution.

English: A Northern Mockingbird spreads its wi...

English: A Northern Mockingbird spreads its wings. Picture taken at a city park in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The problem with this mocking bird was that it would sing right outside her window all day long, and sometimes until 2 in the morning. She was considering drastic measures, to put it nicely. But one day she stopped, researched the bird and came to an understanding if why this bird sang so loudly and for so long.

“… I know this is big leap from appreciating a bird to getting along with people you are seemingly diametrically opposed to. But that bird got me thinking about people and differences–and how the Gordon Model helps people relate to one another with respect and honesty and can help us appreciate one another even if they drive us crazy,” she wrote.

In other words, she could not change the bird, so she had to change the way she looked at, or thought about the bird. She found some empathy for the mockingbird.

This is the kind of thinking that not only brings about serenity, as she related, but also makes for a great leader in my opinion. I wrote in a previous blog entry about empathy, and how it is one of the traits of the servant leader.

I always find it helpful to look up the definition of a word, whether I assume I know the word or not (because we all know what assumptions make out of us;).

Empathy (software)

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Empathy is : the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

“Empathy is also particularly critical to leadership development in this age of young, independent, highly marketable and mobile workers,” according to an article adapted from Bruna Martinuzzi’s book, “The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.”

The article goes on to suggest several ways to practice and hone your empathetic skills.

  1. Listen – truly listen to people. Listen with your ears, eyes and heart. Pay attention to others’ body language, to their tone of voice, to the hidden emotions behind what they are saying to you, and to the context.
  2. Don’t interrupt people. Don’t dismiss their concerns offhand. Don’t rush to give advice. Don’t change the subject. Allow people their moment.
  3. Tune in to non-verbal communication. This is the way that people often communicate what they think or feel, even when their verbal communication says something quite different.
  4. Practice the “93% rule”. We know from a famous study by Professor Emeritus, Albert Mehrabian of UCLA, when communicating about feelings and attitudes,  words – the things we say – account for only 7% of the total message that people receive. The other 93% of the message that we communicate when we speak is contained in our tone of voice and body language. It’s important, then, to spend some time to understand how we come across when we communicate with others about our feelings and attitudes.
  5. Use people’s name. Also remember the names of people’s spouse and children so that you can refer to them by name.
  6. Be fully present when you are with people. Don’t check your email, look at your watch or take phone calls when a direct report drops into your office to talk to you. Put yourself in their shoes. How would you feel if your boss did that to you?
  7. Smile at people.
  8. Encourage people, particularly the quiet ones, when they speak up in meetings. A simple thing like an attentive nod can boost people’s confidence.
  9. Give genuine recognition and praise. Pay attention to what people are doing and catch them doing the right things. When you give praise, spend a little effort to make your genuine words memorable: “You are an asset to this team because..”; “This was pure genius”; “I would have missed this if you hadn’t picked it up.”
  10. Take a personal interest in people. Show people that you care, and genuine curiosity about their lives. Ask them questions about their hobbies, their challenges, their families, their aspirations.
A wink is a type of gesture.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

That all seems relatively easy, right? Well, remember the mockingbird?

It might not be so easy at 2 am or in the middle of a company crisis, but that is what sets great leaders apart from the rest. Those who can keep their head in the face of calamity, showing compassion and empathy to those around them, are the ones who will maintain team integrity and productivity in the most stressful of situations.

Have you had problems with empathy? Have you had a situation in which your patience was tested and you felt it difficult to remain empathetic? Leave me a comment below and broaden my understanding of empathy.

(Oh, and for those who are wondering, the sparrow made it out of the house just fine.)

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3 thoughts on “Why Empathy Makes a Leader

  1. I have a problem with a mocking bird right now, actually! It swoops at me and my dog and chases us down the block! But, I will try to have more empathy for it. I think it is protecting its little babies; which it should not have had right near the bus stop, but hind sight is 20/20 they say. So perhaps I will empathize with the little creature by thinking of things that I may struggle to protect, and next time, thinking twice before putting my most vulnerable things in such high-risk areas. :)

  2. That is great Jennifer. That is exactly the way of it and two lessons learned is always better than one! Thanks for sharing that story, what is it about birds that tests our empathy so?

  3. jono…i stopped reading after 2nd paragraph…for me great leaders open doors and free their team to go out into the world and do what they need to…you did this for the sparrow …bravo

    if you’ve got someone who needs to crow or sing find a way for them to do that or show them the door…or if they’re tasty treat sacrifice them and eat em for dinner [ok may be not] … or if their part of the wildlife protecting their babies then put up with it til the breeding season is done

    for me the question i ask managment is ‘how do you make my jobe/life/task easier so i can keep moving…if you cant do this there is a problem with business process or you aren’t doing your job a s a leader/manager…

    …ok i’ll read rest of article now

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