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Leading for impact (part 5): the radical transparency, humility and presence of empathic leaders

Updated: Apr 10

Impactful leaders influence those around them. But we have all come across leaders who sought to be influential but lacked humility, and so resorted to coercion and manipulation to get things done. These kinds of leaders use sticks and carrots to threaten or extrinsically incentivise people to do what they want. For example, they might give praise (carrot) or threaten disapproval (stick), or they might propose a promotion (carrot) or disciplinary action (stick). But there is another way. Instead of tempting people with carrots or threatening them with sticks, it is possible to help people cultivate their own rewards, whether or not they care for carrots. Give someone a carrot and they’ll do what you want, as long as you supply them with carrots. Help someone grow their own supply of carrots, or whatever motivates them most, and their intrinsic motivation will push them to far greater things than your carrot or stick could have ever done.

The empathic leader is naturally influential because they understand what drives the people they lead, and they can tap into those intrinsic motivations to enable people to achieve their own aspirations. And who wouldn't follow someone who could do that? I will discuss this in more depth in my next blog. But before you go any further in your quest to become influential, there is a crucial precursor, without which, your attempts to influence might end in disaster.

Although well-meaning, influencing methods can easily be weaponised to become a means of manipulation. Dale Carnegie’s classic book, “How to win friends and influence people”,

didn’t become a best-seller because it helped people form deeper relationships. It did so

because it enabled them to make “friends” with the right people and gave them tools to

extract what they wanted from their new friends. Governments around the world haven’t

set up “nudge” units to help people achieve their personal goals. They have done so

because the evidence suggests they can exploit cognitive biases to get people to achieve the government’s objectives more effectively and at lower cost than policies based on either

sticks or carrots.

It doesn’t matter if you are trying to extract personal favours from someone powerful or you are using evidence from research to influence policy for public good. You need to understand your motives, and the needs of those you are working with, if you want to influence, rather than manipulate. It is this empathic connection between your own motives and the needs of others that is the secret to using your influence to drive impact, if that is, like me, you define impact as the benefits we facilitate for others.

What is the difference between influence and manipulation?

When I’m training researchers in influencing skills, I regularly ask people to tell me the difference between influence and manipulation. People find this question surprisingly challenging, as the difference can be subtle. On the surface of things, using your data and models to help shape a new government scheme that will help tackle child poverty whilst saving public funds, sounds like influence, rather than manipulation. And there is nothing wrong with this, if you are convinced that your evidence will help achieve a policy goal for public good, and work hard to make sure the relevant policy teams understand the solutions you are proposing. Whether these teams actually use your work or not is up to them, and they will have to balance your evidence against other data and lines of argument in the decision they ultimately make. However, this seemingly innocent attempt to influence others for good may slide into manipulation if:

  1. You are personally invested in the outcome and might benefit in some way, even if only indirectly (for example, you might be able to claim to your funders or institution that you’ve achieved impact, giving you a greater chance of funding or promotion);

  2. If you aren’t transparent about the potential benefits to you (although awkward, being transparent up front is less embarrassing than the reactions you might get when you come back to ask for a testimonial);

  3. You aren’t actually completely sure about the advice you’re giving, or you think you are sure, but haven’t had time to look at the wider evidence; or

  4. You need to be dishonest to achieve your goal; even if you think your work could change the world, the end does not always justify the means. This may be as seemingly innocent as not acknowledging findings that conflict with your research, or as serious as breaching confidentially “for the greater good”;

But in my experience, that tightening in the chest is often my final warning. Before this, there is often a more subtle sense of excitement; that sense of exhilaration you get when you are about to jump off a high wall, and are pretty confident that you can make it, but not absolutely certain. As my heart rate increases, I experience this as a swelling of my chest – the “puffing up” of pride telling me that I have enough expertise to blag this, as I’m almost certain to be right. Where and how do you experience the reckless confidence of pride? As you look back over the examples of past errors of judgement in your own life, can you detect points early some of these trajectories where pride might have encouraged you to throw caution to the wind?

By being transparent, you are increasing your trustworthiness, and decreasing the likelihood that people feel manipulated by their interactions with you. Although you might be comfortable with your own motives, and know that you are working for the interests of the other person or organisation, or the public good, the people you are working with cannot see your motives, and will not automatically trust you, just because you are a researcher.

However, radical transparency requires humility, which can be hard when someone has approached you for advice as “the expert”. It is easy to get carried away and begin extrapolating and inferring answers from your general knowledge, and forget to add the necessary caveats if you end up straying from evidence into informed conjecture. The problem however, is that this sort of thing creeps up on you, and you tend not to realise until after you have said something you regret. This is often because your mind is so pre-occupied with the conversation you are having, that there isn’t space for the meta-cognition you need to realise that you are about to fall into a trap of your own making.

The embodied knowledge that will give you the edge

That’s why I like to use a very different form of knowledge to keep my feet on the ground; embodied knowing. If I can remain mindful enough to detect physical sensations, then my body can supply me with information that can prompt me to do the meta-cognition and put the brakes on, if necessary. The easiest of these sensations to detect often comes too late, but it can still act as a useful warning light to help you correct your course, mid-conversation and avoid disaster.

Think back to times in the past when you made errors of judgement, whether professional or personal, and analyse what warning signs you missed, in the lead up to your mistake. As you identify each point at which you could have intervened to prevent what ultimately happened, ask how you felt emotionally, and where you felt this in your body. For me, there’s a subtle tightening in my chest, that betrays a rising anxiety, telling me that there’s something wrong. What is it for you?

But in my experience, that tightening in the chest is often my final warning. Before this, there is often a more subtle sense of excitement; that sense of exhilaration you get when you are about to jump off a high wall, and are pretty confident that you can make it, but not absolutely certain. As my heartrate increases, I experience this as a swelling of my chest – the “puffing up” of pride telling me that I have enough expertise to blag this, as I’m almost certain to be right. Where and how do you experience the reckless confidence of pride? As you look back over the examples of past errors of judgement in your own life, can you detect points early some of these trajectories where pride might have encouraged you to throw caution to the wind?

Sometimes, there is a third physical symptom that points me to a deeper, longer-term dissonance. For me, this is neck pain, but for many others I know, it is back pain, or it could be some other physical symptom that you have worked out over the years, correlates with stress (often exacerbated by poor lifestyle choices that are driven by stress). In fact, as I write this, I am unable to move my neck without significant pain, making it impossible to drive and painful to even sit holding my head in an upright position. However, rather than continuing to take pain killers, I’m asking what the pain is trying to tell me. It only took a few moments of reflection this morning to realise that it is pointing me towards a recent error of judgement.

I’m usually good at being self-compassionate when I make mistakes, which I regularly do. But this happened over a month ago, and I’ve still not been able to shake off this particular error of judgement. Nobody had told me the information I was receiving was confidential, I had told myself, and by sharing it with my research team, we would be able to adapt our research to help the person who was sharing the information and his team, and deliver wider public good. I trusted my team and told them to keep this to themselves. And yet, deep down, I knew that the information had been shared in a closed group and had I asked permission to share it, I was not sure if the answer would have been “yes”.

Looking back now, each of the physical warning signs I have described were present. I could feel that flutter of excitement in my chest as I realised what this would mean for the impact of our research, and I was bursting to tell my team the news. There was a sense of self-importance as I composed my email, as though I was above the tacit rules that I knew I was breaking. And yet, as I hovered over the “send” button, I could feel that tightening in my chest as a seed of doubt grew in my mind. It was telling me to wait and think about what I was doing, but before I could engage my mind fully, I’d pressed the button. And almost immediately I knew I had done the wrong thing. As far as I was aware, only one of the team read the email, and I apologised to her for my indiscretion when we spoke the following day. But that was not enough to assuage my guilty conscience, which was beginning to grow arms and legs.

Guilt is a good thing when you have done something wrong – without it, we would keep doing wrong without remorse. My physical pain however, was telling me that this had progressed from guilt to shame, as I was now subconsciously generalising from what I had done wrong to a sense that I myself, was fundamentally wrong. As a survivor of childhood abuse, shame regularly haunts me, and I can easily slip into old thought patterns without realising it. The result is that I have, in the past, blown up small issues into major catastrophes as I seek to publicly humiliate myself in a misguided attempt to seek forgiveness from bemused colleagues who tell me that they hadn’t even noticed what I’d done, or had long ago forgotten about whatever it was. And so, as I have tackled the root cause of the shame I’ve been mired in over these last few weeks, I have been able to see the issue for what it is; an error of judgement that belied a deeper pride I need to tackle. Repentance is about turning away from the wrongdoing and ensuring it can’t happen again, and in this case, I would likely draw more attention to my unread email by trying to tackle it head-on, than I would by letting sleeping dogs lie, and making sure I learned from my mistake.

Part of what I have learned, is that it is possible detect my own inadvertent attempts to manipulate those around me, by listening more deeply to my body. I hope that by sharing my experience today, you will be able to begin identifying your own embodied knowledge, so you can identify the early warning signs before you make your own next error of judgement. But how do you get better at using this sort of knowledge? This isn’t something we’re typically taught in formal education. However, for a leader who wants to be as responsible as they are influential, this is an essential skill.

But how do you do this in practice?

How do you learn a skill that involves the body more that it does the brain? We instinctively know the answer if we have learned to ride a bike or play a musical instrument. We have to practice. We need to use our muscles, and they will feedback to our brains and tell us when we’re in balance or at the right position on the finger board. The more we practice, the more effectively we can read our bodies, and as the muscle memory develops, our body takes over without us having to even engage our conscious mind.

In this case, we are exercising a mindfulness muscle. Instead of being fused with our experience, minute to minute, we are able to stand back and observe ourselves and our emotions, and be actively conscious of the moment we are inhabiting. If I am fused with my experience, when I feel nervous, I am nervous. But when I am able to stand back from that experience, I am able to observe that I am feeling nervous and ask why, gaining enough perspective to notice that someone sitting in the front row reminds me of my mother, and now I can process that feeling, rather than acting subconsciously out of it.

To build this muscle, I have started taking 15 minutes in the morning and before I go to bed to try and just be present in the moment without thinking about my day, what I need to do next, or letting my mind wander to other random subjects. I have struggled with these sorts of practices ever since I was depressed and discovered evidence that mindfulness might help my recovery. But recently I discovered a phrase designed to keep me on task, and now I focus on my breath, saying one word as I breath in, and the next as I breath out, repeating over and over: I – am – here – now – in – this. As a Christian, I like to add “with – you” or “in – you” to the end, bringing an additional dimension to the sense of presence I get from the process. I try and repeat this when I get a breathing space in my day, rather than reaching for my phone to fill the gaps.

Perhaps even more powerful than this though, is a meta-cognition exercise designed to enable you to pause and read the signs that are coming from your body and emotions, so you can make more conscious decisions. Cognitive neuroscientist, Dr Caroline Leaf, teaches a ten second awareness practice where you breathe in for three seconds, saying "think, feel" and then breathe out, saying "choose", enabling subconscious thoughts and feelings to rise to your conscious awareness, so you can make more informed decisions.

Combined with getting good sleep, the mental clarity, focus and calm that these tools bring to my day is remarkable, given how little time I spend in explicit practice. The better I get at it, the more it becomes like free-wheeling my bike instead of walking through my day. I no longer need to think about being mindful, in the same way that I don’t need to think about how to keep balanced as I free-wheel; I am free to watch the landscape slide past and feel the wind in my face. And when there’s a bump in the road, as there inevitably will be, the next time I’m faced with an ethical dilemma, I’ll instinctively grip the handlebars and take responsibility for the direction I take. At the heart of the empathic leadership model is a humility that is simply about knowing who you are, and being comfortable and present with that from moment to moment.


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