Empathetic leadership?

The need for empathy has been voiced repeatedly in recent leadership literature.  So it is always interesting to have an alternative view.  I came on one recently that struck a chord based on recent experience, where I had to exercise leadership in chairing a volunteer board.

The view is that of Edwin Friedman, an ordained Jewish rabbi and family therapist, As a founder of a Jewish congregation in Washington DC he was also an advisor to many other congregations, both Jewish and Christian. His penetrating and often humorous observations cuts through much of management and leadership jargon and he appears to preach what he practises.  A Failure of Nerve, Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix was originally published in 1997 and has been recently republished with commentary by some of his adherents.

Friedman observes that empathy is a surprisingly new word – not even appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary published in 1931.  Sympathy, on the other hand has a 450 year track record and compassion goes back to 1340. Friedman sees empathy as an example of the herding instinct that characterizes 20th century anxiety. He notes that saying this is probably going to have him immediately accused of heresy.

He notes that being caring and sympathetic is an essential component of leadership and at times is an appropriate response.  What he questions is whether feeling the pain of others at an intense level makes them more responsible or actually allows them to victimize the entire group.  His whole book is addressed to parents and presidents in a rather candid way of suggesting what our response has an effect no matter what the level.

Some of this rings true for me. I found that an entire board became overly involved in the pain of a new project in a way that ultimately affected both the continuing organization and the project in a negative way. The board as a whole was accused of being dysfunctional when one might have wondered whether all members were equally willing to take responsibility. Those who had more resources became the focus of giving by the other component. What happened is that those asking became better at taking. While everyone was willing to admit that the new project was immature, we seemed to fall into the trap of immaturity among the individuals including myself to focus on empathy rather than on responsibility.

And that would be Friedman’s prescription in such as situation. One can’t change others.  One can only take responsibility for one’s self.  As a leader one may then be accused of all kinds of things, including a lack of empathy. It is taking responsibility for the direction in which things are going that is the real role. Ultimately it is about personal integrity. Friedman calls this the non-anxious presence.  It means not being held hostage by those who do not support the over arching vision – and at the same time not checking out. but staying in touch.  More on this to come.

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