#64 Empathy

As usual, the folks at Army Knowledge Online (AKO) have provided me once again with a great source document which adds another layer to the discussion of those traits and characteristics shared by successful leaders. The article is entitled, "Empathy - A True Leaders Skill" and written by Lieutenant Colonel (Ret) Harry Garner. You can find it at the link below:

In the introduction to the piece, LTC Garner asks the following question:

"Why is it so important to see things from the Soldier's point of view, to "identify with and enter into another person's feelings and emotions?"

He then answers with the following:

"The U.S. involvement in extended operations and its focus on counterinsurgency, has brought a renewed awareness of wars human dimension. Humans desire supportive relationships, and empathy is the foundation that builds trusting relationships. The leader who harnesses the power of real empathy fosters better communication, tighter cohesion, stronger discipline and greater morale throughout his or her organization."

That paragraph may form the missing link to many of my earlier thoughts regarding the value of the individual over the role or position in the organization. I think that many leaders, military, corporate, or civic, often forget that the people in their organizations are the real prize. That the men, women, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers who work for them to either produce a product or engage the enemy, or lead a community are the reason they exist. They would not be termed a leader if they did not have subordinates to lead. Instead of focusing on the value of the individual, they focus only on how that person adds to or detracts from their pursuit of the goal. Instead of truly understanding 'servant leadership', they exercise power or position based coercive or positional leadership. That may be effective in the short run, but is rarely so in the marathon of a 10 year war. I believe that empathy is a defining characteristic of any person who calls themselves a 'servant' leader. The trait (empathy) and the title (servant) are inextricably linked, and I don't think you can have one without the other.

Further on in the article there is the following quote from Dr. Carl Rogers:

"Empathy means entering into the private perceptional world of the other and becoming thoroughly at home in it...To be with another in this way means that for the time being, you lay aside your own views and values in order to enter into another's world without prejudice. In some sense it means that you lay aside yourself."

LTC Garner then goes on to say the following, something that most military leaders do not seem to understand nor often try to do:

"So while empathy is an emotional connection with the other person, it is not based on sorrow, guilt, suffering or weakness, but on developing a mutual relationship."

He also states later in the article:

"...empathy implies risk on the part of the leader. It requires increasing one's level of humility and lowering one's perceived notion of power. As the leader demonstrates empathy, he reveals his feelings and values to the organization."

There is a lot more to this article and it truly deserves reading and consideration by anyone who calls themselves, or is termed a leader by others. The concept here is that there is an innate acceptance that before we are leader and led, before we are superior and subordinate, we are individual people with our own sense of the world, both as it is and as we think it should be. For any leader to be successful in building an organization, there must be an understanding of those emotions, feelings, and perceptions and then using them to enhance the unit, not denying them and painting a one way only picture for subordinates to follow.

I freely admit that I am an emotional leader. I wear my emotions on my sleeve and have difficulty hiding them, even when to do so would probably be in my best interest. People often misconstrue this as not thinking my way through a problem, and reacting before all the facts are known. And while there is some truth to that, in most cases, my emotive response is nothing more than my natural inclination on how to deal with the situation at hand. I would make a lousy poker player. I cannot hide what I'm feeling at the moment, and at this point in my career, I generally don't try. To do so feels almost hypocritical. Like being long winded, I accept that my emotional responses are a part of who and what I am. Some people will perceive that as being a good leader trait, and others will not. One thing it does do however is demonstrate to my subordinates that I am human. They know that if I get fired up about something, that there is probably a good reason for it. Whatever is provoking the emotion has struck some nerve and the human being is now responding, not the positional leader.

I remember about 9 years ago when I was a Drill Sergeant that we had a young trainee whose father died very suddenly of a massive heart attack. After the chaplain and commander had informed her of what had happened, we began to make the plans for her to leave Basic Training and return to her family for the funeral. I remember that the First Sergeant would not let her go home until she had thrown a live hand grenade (one of the few absolutely mandatory requirements of Basic Training back then) and that she could only be gone for 4 days. I was livid. It is one of the very few times in my career that I have totally lost my mind and all military bearing. I was screaming at him for being so cruel. I just couldn't believe that he could be so callous. I remember telling him that if it were he, or one of the cadre, that we would easily get a week or more to be with our families during the funeral etc. He agreed with me but said it was different for cadre or permanent party than it was for trainees. Of course, I fundamentally (at the top of my lungs) disagreed. She was a young woman who had just lost her father. At that point, all other roles or labels need to be put aside. Basic training could be finished at some other time. We failed on that day to exercise the empathy required of the institution to care for its' people.

As I have said many times before the hierarchy of the Army is sometimes it's worst enemy. We scratch and claw for promotion and position and then try to hang on to that title while setting our sights on the next rung on the ladder. Most of corporate America is like this as well. We get to a point where our quest for the bras ring becomes more important than how we get there, or who we step on to do it.

Empathetic leadership is the messy business of leading people. Soldier is a title. We lead human beings. And, seen on that level, we are all very much equal. A person's position should be used to assist his/her subordinates to ensure that that equality is always evident. The leader should work to understand the subordinates viewpoint, even if he/she does not agree with it. The led should develop a deep trust that the leader truly is looking out for them and had their best interest - and the organizations - at heart. When the two conflict, the empathetic leader will have already earned the respect of the subordinate enough that they understand why the decision was made the way it was.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

1 comment:

  1. Jeff....I am real happy you posted and commented on Harry Garner's empathy article....he and I have been friends since our early Army days in 1983....he is one smart and empathetic leader....and one leader and teacher who "gets it"....I agree that empathy is a must to make a good leader a great leader....it is about listening and really caring....(yes, which includes tough realistic training and having to kick guys in the ass when it is needed)....but many in our Army would argue that empathy is a sign of weakness....I think they are wrong....JD