Katherine Bell, at HBR’s Conversation Starter blog, weighs in on empathy in “Empathy: Not Such a Soft Skill“. She also questions the NY Times article why leaders can’t be both tough and empathetic and still be successful, which caught my attention earlier through Dan McCarthy’s Great Leadership blog.
Hard to believe, but Ms. Bell and I didn’t communicate before she wrote her post – and yet we both agreed that it is possible for successful leaders to be BOTH tough AND empathetic.
I must admit that I do prefer the definition from Management Research Group’s Leadership Effectiveness Analysis (“LEA 360”, a 360 instrument that I administer to clients): “Demonstrating an active concern for people and their needs by forming close and supportive reltationships with others”.
This instrument uses 22 competencies to measure a leader’s effectiveness, empathy being one of what could be termed the “softer skills” (this instrument, in my mind, is extremely balanced between the softer competencies and the tougher ones), yet essential if a leader is going to be effective.
As I am fond of reminding anyone who will listen: “leadership is all about relationships”. A leader can demonstrate (and should) a whole lot of other hard skills, but if he looks around and nobody is following him – he isn’t leading.
A leader gains followers and gets the work done through developing close and supportive relationships with others. Period. I have no doubt that those who score low on the empathy competency will not be successful over the long run (perhaps they will enjoy some success over the short run).
My question: how does a leader who lacks empathy in the way that the Oxford dictionary defines,* or in the way that the LEA 360 defines above, develop it? I have a few ideas. Care to add yours?
*The power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.