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Leading for impact (part 3): The purpose of an empathic leader

Updated: Apr 19

Someone asked me today what skills they needed to learn to become an empathic leader. Perhaps they should invest in training to become a facilitator, or learn deliberation skills, they asked? Yes, I said, these things will be useful, but without changing hearts and minds, no amount of skill will draw people to the change you want to create. Whether they have confidence in their convictions or a quiet certainty about where they are going, natural leaders draw people to their sense of purpose. But not just any purpose will empower people to change - I am talking about a kind of purpose that has deep roots.

Academic definitions of purpose focus on meaning. If, as Abraham Maslov suggested, the highest need we can ever meet, above the self-actualised tip of his triangle, is purpose (or transcendence as he called it), then we are all trying to find meaning in our work. If this is a task for us all though, why do we meet so few people who seem to have found a real depth of purpose, and why do we often feel so demotivated and rudderless? Part of the reason, I think, is that we are sometimes too afraid to look, despite the fact that the answers are hidden in plain sight. I often start training workshops by asking everyone to tell me what inspires them most about what they do in work. The initial answers often don't tell me very much, other than what the person likes to study, but when I ask why they find that so inspiring, we start to get some more interesting answers.

If you want to understand your purpose, you need to ask yourself why you love the things you love, and keep asking why until you get to the deeper answers, no matter what you discover lying beneath your initial assumptions. For example, I love doing research, but why?

  • I study environmental governance because I'm inspired by nature and want to protect it. But why?

  • The reason I'm inspired by nature is because of the way it makes me feel. When I walk into the forest behind my house, I instantly feel calmer, more grounded and connected to everything. Why?

  • That connection often gives me the perspective I need to see the things I'm struggling with differently, and as I imagine everyone else who is struggling with the same things, I realise I'm not alone in my experience, and I start to practice self-compassion.

  • But why does nature have this effect on me? While there is evidence of physiological and psychological changes when we engage with nature, why do I personally get that sense of connection and perspective?

  • I remember Sunday afternoon walks with my family, and the connection I experienced with my father (who died when I was a teenager), and my brother who I subsequently lost contact with and miss every day. I remember the innocence and ability to live in the present moment that I experienced, playing with my brother on those walks.

  • At this point, I realise that I'm connecting to something deeper and I have a sense of perspective that comes from knowing my place in time and space, here in this forest in rural Aberdeenshire, in Scotland, on planet Earth, my father's son, a father to my own children, the latest in a long line of ancestors who were themselves connected to a deeper purpose that still resonates with me today, knowing that I am descended from a minister who sailed on the second ever ship from the UK to the New World, to care for the souls of the new settlers.

  • And now that puts me in mind of all those who suffered at the hands of those settlers, who have been marginalised and exploited ever since, and my resolve grows, to do my part to right those wrongs and do what little I can to make the world a better place.

Some of the answers to my own "why" questions are uncomfortable and invoke sadness, but by understanding how these experiences have formed me, I can integrate them into my purpose. The deep rootedness of that purpose then enables me to express my purpose in a way that is more holistic, and hence is more deeply authentic, with more potential points of connection with others.

Ask yourself the same series of "why" questions and see how far you get. Then look for the implicit answers you have voiced about your identity and values. Or see if you can identify them in the answers I gave to this line of questioning. You can see that as I answered the questions, I became aware of my identity as a son, brother, father and global citizen, shaped as these have been by my family, religion and culture. You can see that I began to implicitly voice values, which if I were to make explicit, might include love, and justice with compassion (both for myself and for others, including those who are very different and less fortunate to me).

If you want, at this point you can ask one final "why" question. Why do you hold these values? Where do they come from? On a philosophical level I can think of two equally valid answers to this question. The first draws on evolutionary theory. Humans have evolved as cooperative beings. Based on the size of their cranial cavities, it is thought that Neanderthals were more intelligent than Homo sapiens, but they never learned to cooperate and live in the size of tribes that Homo sapiens did. And so we out-competed them, and as a result of our ability to cooperate and share knowledge, skills and tasks with each other, we spread to inhabit every habitat on earth. It is therefore hardly surprising that almost every religion and culture through history has valued the idea of treating others as you expect to be treated yourself. This so called "golden rule" is likely encoded into our DNA - those who were kind and prioritised the good of the group were accepted by their tribe and passed on their genes. On the other hand, those who were egotistical and selfish were likely to have been rejected by the tribe, and in a harsh environment, being cast out by yourself was a death sentence.

This capacity for selflessness has been described as one of our defining characteristics as humans, that sets us apart from other animals. And yet, we also carry the DNA of the animals that predated human evolution, and so the human condition has a fundamental tension at its heart, between the animal "flesh" and the human "spirit". Jesus put it powerfully in the Gospel of Thomas when he said, "Blessed is the lion which a man eats so that the lion becomes a man. But cursed is the man whom a lion eats so that the man becomes a lion." We all have animal-like drives and appetites, and if we abandon ourselves to hedonism, our human nature may eventually be consumed by our animal nature and we become the raging lion. Our task as humans, Jesus argues, is to master our animal urges. He does not tell us to ignore or deny them - rather to consume and integrate our animal nature within our human nature where it can be channelled; the lion becomes a man.

The second answer to why we might hold the values we do as human beings reaches beyond evolution. While we like to think of ourselves as co-operative and kind to others, we tend to do so mainly to people who are similar to us, who can give back to us in future. Our true nature is revealed starkly when you look at who we decide to give our possessions to when we die. Despite being genetically more similar to our siblings, they cannot help us pass our genetic code to the next generation, and so people rarely leave significant amounts of inheritance to their brothers or sisters. Even fewer leave significant amounts to cousins, and no matter what our politics, and what we may have said about the importance of giving to the poor, it is extremely unlikely that we will leave anything at all to people we are not related to, no matter how needy or deserving they may be. No, we leave everything we have to our children, and in so doing, we increase their likelihood of success in life, and so their success in passing our genes to the next generation. The result is that many people believe that human beings are ultimately selfish, only helping those who can help us, whether in material or genetic terms. And yet, many of us hold values that go way beyond this idea of reciprocal co-operation; we believe in compassion and tolerance, loving the unlovely, giving to the poor and setting free those who are oppressed and powerless. Are we deluding ourselves? Or are we tapping into something deeper than our evolution?

For me, the best evidence I have seen for the existence of a human spirit are the acts of kindness and self-sacrifice that we seen throughout history, when people gave up their lives for strangers, or for people who would never even know, let alone be able to return the favour. Alfred Vanderbilt was en route from New York to London in 1945 when his civilian boat was attacked by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland. As a first class passenger, he was given a life jacket and a place on a lifeboat, but he gave his lifejacket to a passenger who didn't have one and helped others board lifeboats as the ship sank. He drowned saving his fellow passengers. A similar story is told of three chaplains and a Rabbi who were on board a ship that was hit by a German torpedo in 1943. All of them gave their lifejackets to others and drowned praying for the dying as the ship sank. But history doesn't just document individual acts of self-sacrifice; there are also stories of collective acts of selflessness. In 1665, the black death was sweeping across Europe, but the small village of Eyam in Derbyshire had escaped the plague, until a bale of cloth arrived at a tailor's shop from London containing fleas that were carrying the disease. As villagers started to succumb to the illness, people started to pack their belongings and prepared to leave. But the local minister was concerned that by doing so they would take the disease to the surrounding villages and towns, and kills many more. Somehow he convinced everyone to remain in the village, and as a result it is estimated that 260 out of the 800 villagers died. However, through their actions, many strangers in the surrounding areas were undoubtably saved. Altruistic behaviour even extends beyond our fellow human beings - look at the immense sacrifice of conservationists who have sought to protect non-human species from extinction and been murdered by the human populations whose interests they compromised.

Evolutionary theory struggles to explain why we would instinctively feel it was "right" for these people to give up their lives for people they had never even met, let alone for another species. And yet, these stories resonate with us deeply and are retold in books and films to inspire others to do more than just look after people like them, in their tribe. They are codified in religious and humanist teachings alike. They suggest that we are more than just our evolution, more than our animal nature, and more, even than our co-operative human nature. We have the ability to transcend our evolution, to give to those who cannot give back, to tolerate those who offend us, and to be kind and forgive to those who hurt us, giving them a glimpse of what it means to serve a deeper purpose.

But there is a problem. There is a good chance you have stopped reading before you got this far, because these ideas challenge your beliefs and assumptions, or make you uncomfortable for some reason you can't quite explain. Asking why we do what we do - really why - often takes us to uncomfortable places. The deeper we look, the more likely we are to find answers we would rather not have uncovered. When I first realised that I was pursuing impact in my career as a researcher, because part of me wanted to make up for the wrongs I had experienced in an abusive childhood, my work felt tainted. It felt as though my success was now attributable to my abuser rather than to me, and I wanted nothing to do with it. When you sense uncomfortable answers ahead, it is easier to settle for a shallower understanding of yourself and your purpose.

That's a problem if you want to be an empathic leader. If there are deeper parts of yourself that you are not willing to acknowledge, then you will struggle to connect deeply and authentically with those around you. That's not to say that you have to reveal every part of yourself and over-share. But you know from reading books and watching films that you struggle to connect with under-developed characters. It is hard to explain, but you feel like there is something missing, like they aren't real or believable; there's something two-dimensional or flat about them. Sometimes we meet people like this in real-life. You can connect easily with them on the surface; they might be funny or share similar interests. Even if we have no desire to take the relationship any deeper than that, there is still a sense that there's something missing. Compare this to the other relationships you have, and you can see the difference. You might still just connect primarily around a shared interest and just enjoy spending time together, but there is something about these other people where you sense that they are fully comfortable in their own skin, with nothing to hide, even though you've never asked them anything in any way personal. We can all instinctively sense people who know themselves deeply and have made peace with themselves, and something in us tells us it is safe to connect with them. Equally, we all sometimes have a niggling sense that something is wrong when someone is not being fully authentic. We don't know what they are hiding from themselves or from us, but our instincts tell us to proceed with caution.

People tell me that the person who abused me was like this. On the surface, there was every indication that they were trustworthy, and people loved spending time with them. But there was always a sense that they "weren't all there" - not on an intellectual level, but on some deeper level, there was a blank space where there should have been something. This omission wasn't enough to make them suspicious at the time, but looking back, they all settled for a relationship that stayed on the surface, now matter how many decades they had known each other. That's not to say this person didn't ever share problems or ask for help. They regularly did so, and people felt sympathy for them. But as one problem replaced another, year after year, and it became clear that on some level this person enjoyed the attention that their problems brought them, it was increasingly hard to feel empathy and fully understand what it was like to be in this person's shoes. The reason it was so hard to connect empathically was that there was a whole realm of denial, where they had convinced themselves that the things that were happening between me and them were either acceptable or not real. No doubt, there was another realm beneath that, where the reasons for their behaviour lay, in their own past, that they were not prepared to look at. But when a person is in denial about such deeply formative experiences, there will always be a sense that there is a part of their identity that is locked and inaccessible, and others will be able to feel that subconsciously too, and be wary.

And so, I told the colleague who had asked me what skills they could learn that they needed to learn how to look deeply into their identity and values, to fully understand their purpose, as the first step towards becoming an empathic leader. Know yourself to know those around you. Only by knowing all of yourself and making peace with what you find, will others be able to connect with a fully authentic person. And from these deep places of knowing, you will find connections to similar places within others, making possible empathic connections that would otherwise be impossible. To do this requires self-compassion, being kind rather than judging yourself, realising you are not alone in the discoveries you are making, and being mindful of how these realisations make you feel, without over-identifying with the issues you uncover (these are the three elements of self-compassion taught by Kristen Neff from University of Austin at Texas).

The self-discovery that becomes possible with self-compassion then enables us to lead with compassion. By definition, compassion is empathy with action. When I empathise with another, I identify and understand their thoughts, perspectives, and emotions, and show that I understand them with intention and care (based on Malissa Clark and colleagues' 2019 definition in the Journal of Organisational Behaviour). This empathic insight then drives me to act to make their world a better place. This is why empathic leadership, once we truly understand our purpose, drives connection and service (the other two pillars of the empathic leadership model). This is the kind of leader who leads for others, rather than themselves, their ego or their next step up the ladder. And people can instinctively smell the difference between the stench of aggrandisement and the scent of altruism. They may follow a self-serving leader as far as this will serve their own interests, but they are unlikely to follow willingly once they have achieved all they can for themselves under that regime. On the other hand, people are attracted to the company of boldly compassionate people, who are willing to make sacrifices and challenge hierarchies to help those they feel for, whether they are officially leaders or not.

There is however one final problem I need to address: the empathy bias. This is why it is so important that we transcend our evolution and learn to love the unlovely; if we don't, then our compassion becomes nothing more than cronyism. The empathy bias has been well studied in nursing, where it is known that empathy is a key predictor of effective nursing practice and patient outcomes. These studies show that nurses find it easier to empathise with patients who are more similar to them, for example in terms of social distance or values, and they struggle to empathise with patients who are very different from them, and as a result (usually without realising it) give them less time and a lower standards of care. We can all detect the empathy bias at work in our own lives when we consider who we judge most harshly (often those who are most fundamentally different to us) or make allowances for (because they are similar enough to us that we can appreciate the mitigating circumstances as we put ourselves in their shoes and wonder if we might have done the same if we had been in their place). It is easy to be kind to someone like us, in our tribe, who is often someone who might be able to give us something back at some future date if we were ever to need help. It is far harder to kind to someone who holds opposing political and moral views to ours, from a different strata in society, who could never give us anything back in return. And yet, as leaders, this is our task. After all, we rarely get to choose everyone in the teams we have to lead (and they rarely get any active role in the decisions that put us in charge of them).

And so, the task of the empathic leader is to overcome the empathy bias. The first step is to become aware of our natural tendencies to trust or distrust certain types of people, or to want to spend time with or avoid others. The second, harder step is to go out of our way to spend time with people we don't naturally enjoy being with, so we can get to know them better, and to give them the same opportunities we give to those we instinctively trust without favouritism. This is where the deep work you have done, as you have learned to understand yourself, comes into play. While you may have different interests, opinions and preferences, different ways of working and interacting, and different backgrounds and perceptions, at the level of identities and values, you almost certainly hold common ground. I have worked with my colleague Dr Jasper Kenter over the years, running workshops with people in conflict, and one of the things he loves doing, is to present the findings of a pre-workshop questionnaire at the start of the day. The week before the workshop, he sends them all a Schwartz values compass to assess "value orientations", which are described as "guiding principles in your life" and include values related to power (e.g. preserving social status), achievement (e.g. being influential), hedonism (e.g. enjoying life), universalism (e.g. equality), benevolence (e.g. being forgiving), tradition (e.g. being devout), conformity (e.g. being polite) and security (e.g. preserving social order). No matter how different the participants' views might be on the issue they have come to discuss, at this deeper level there is always common ground. If you then ask people to share stories from their own experience that express these values, you see people creating empathic connection as they see their opponents in a new light.

I'm not suggesting that you re-create this workshop, but I am suggesting that by seeking to understand the multi-faceted identities and values of those you seek to serve, you will, if you have done the deep work of understanding yourself first, find points of connection. As you find these points of empathic connection, your task is to imaginatively try to see the world through their eyes, so that you can understand how best to serve them. And if you are unable to serve them in the way that they need, you will have the insights necessary to explain your position from their perspective, showing that you understand why this might be problematic. While you might not have time to do this for everyone you lead in a large organisation, seeking out connections with people that might represent the different perspectives of those you serve will make you less likely to fall into the empathy trap and serve only those who are like you, who you spend time with and understand, assuming that everyone else will be just as grateful.

Of course, introspection alone will not make you the leader you want to be, as Herminia Ibarra from London Business School, points out so effectively in her book, Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader. You need to act your way into empathic leadership because empathy without action helps nobody. But if you are led by empathy, you will instinctively know the actions you need to take as you see the world through the eyes of those you connect with. Taking those actions are your first steps towards empathic leadership. When you give yourself and those around you permission to feel, you can each bring your whole authentic selves to work and increase the likelihood that you connect and work together more effectively. As a result, there is evidence that empathic leaders are perceived to be more sensitive, have better relationships with colleagues and are seen as more confident and secure. A recent study of 889 US employees by Catalyst showed that employees with highly empathic senior leaders report being much more creative and engaged than those with less empathic leaders. Employees with empathic leaders were more likely report good work-life balance, and feel that their life circumstances were understood and respected. In workplaces where empathy is modelled, it may spread, leading to higher levels of trust and hence cooperation between colleagues who are able to understand the motives of their co-workers more deeply, according to research by Arunas Radzvilavicius and colleagues, published in Evolutionary Biology.

This stands in contrast to traditional models of leadership that emphasise the infectious charisma of effective leaders. These models often cite "vision" as a crucial leadership skill, but when few people share your vision, visionary leadership from the top of an organisation just widens the gulf between how managers and staff see the path ahead. Empathic leadership requires a different sort of "inner vision", starting with self-knowledge and acts of self-compassion, before becoming curious about the worlds our colleagues inhabit and extending acts of compassion to them. This sort of bottom-up leadership meets people where they are, with whatever values, beliefs and vision they have, and seeks to enable them to take the next step on their path, rather than herding everyone onto your path. Although this is more chaotic than the well-structured and ordered corporate plan, creativity was never a structured or ordered thing, and people have never liked being told want they should think or feel. Instead of learning how to manage the chaos of human creativity, we need to learn how to manage for the chaos of human creativity. Rather than breaking the spirits of those we work with, we can enable our colleagues to experience what it is to be fully human, as their spirits rise in response to their "why".

Listen to the podcast version of this post here

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