Identity, Empathy and Leadership in the Time of Trump

Photo by PeopleImages/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by PeopleImages/iStock / Getty Images

Let me start by saying this is not a political commentary. I made a very conscientious decision not to make my businesses or writings about my personal politics. I have, however, based the vision of my company on the tenets of values based leadership.  Hopefully, as you read this article and consider my point of view on this topic, you will consider my experience in working in the diversity and inclusion space with the nation's largest diversity and inclusion firm to be significant. And, the fact that I spent 15 years working on college campuses working with student groups from all walks of life. I’ve advised groups like the Black Women Support Group at Lafayette College and travelled with the AIDS quilt in the early 90’s. 

We are one year into a new administration. I can’t let this week...the week of “s...hole countries” go by without making some observations from my leadership lens. I've been thinking alot about the connection between identity, empathy and leadership. First, identity. During my time as a Student Affairs professional at Lafayette College, our team would bring together all sorts of student groups for leadership training. I have a particularly strong memory of a January training session where over 100 emerging leaders gathered for Diversity (we only called it Diversity training back then) Training. Our facilitator introduced us to the web of inclusion. It was a simple exercise that required us to form a large circle. Each person in the circle went around and shared what made them unique or different...a piece of their identity. People in the circle were then encouraged to “connect” with others sharing common identities. Visualize a gigantic spider web with all the delicate pieces linked together. I have never forgotten the power of this exercise on "identity."

Next, consider the definition of the related word, empathy. Psychology Today defines empathy as the "experience of understanding another person's condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling." Research shows that empathy is a leadership characteristic that can be learned. 

The February 18th issue of Oprah asks "What Defines You.' Oprah addresses this issue of identity and shares a powerful quote from Walt Whitman.

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Accordingly, we contain multitudes, and it is our perogative to look behind the the classifications we've given ourselves and others. 

My issue with what is going on in this country in the context of leadership is that, while we may be able to embrace our own identities, we are collectively losing our ability to be empathetic, or identify with others. I am a woman. I am a Jew. I am a wife and mother. I’ve been divorced. I suffer from chronic pain. I am a democrat. I am an Eagles fan. I am a leader. These are my "multitudes", words that simply describe parts of my identity and they help me to connect authentically with others. Because I try to apply empathy in a consistent manner, I tend to think about the connectedness of "isms" when thinking about my identity. If I won't tolerate sexism because I am a woman, then I shouldn't tolerate all of the other "isms", such as racism, even if those other "isms" don't impact me directly. . 

So how does this all connect to "think good leadership?" Does being skilled at empathy contribute to a leader’s performance? Here are some interesting research findings:

  • The Center for Creative Leadership found that empathy is positively related to job performance. Managers who show more empathy toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses. The findings were consistent across the sample: empathic emotion as rated from the leader’s subordinates positively predicts job performance ratings from the leader’s boss.”
  • William Baker and Michael O’Malley, authors of "Leading With Kindness" argue that the practice of kindness in corporations has a positive impact on bottom line business results. They argue that a management style, which could be called transformational, that has these traits—compassion, empathy, integrity, gratitude, authenticity, humility and humor—improves employee performance and employee retention.
  • Kets de Vries argues there also seems to be a neurological component to empathy. The chemical currency of empathy is controlled by a group of neurotransmitters—endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin—that reward us by making us feel good. In particular, oxytocin (also known as the “love hormone”) seems to play an important role in social bonding by, among other things, making us more sensitive to the emotions of others. Empathic executives are better at managing relationships. They establish safe environments in which people can express hopes and fears. Because it is “contagious,” empathy contributes to better negotiation, collaboration, and conflict resolution. Empathy plays an important role in effective team formation. When the expression of empathy is part of a company’s culture, its stress level will be lower. All of these advantages lead to a more committed workforce with a greater motivation to perform beyond expectations.
  • In a white paper delivered to the Society of Industrial Organizational Psychology Conference, William A Gentry, Todd J. Weber and Golnaz Sadri argued “transformational leaders need empathy in order to show their followers that they care for their needs and achievement; authentic leaders also need to have empathy in order to be aware of others; and that empathy is also a key part of emotional intelligence that several researchers believe is critical to being an effective leader,” and “our results reveal that empathy is positively related to job performance. Managers who show more empathy toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses.” They also concluded empathy is not a fixed trait. It can be learned. Leaders can develop and enhance their empathy skills through coaching, training, or developmental opportunities and initiatives.

Having established the benefits of leaders having empathy, according to a Psychology Today article entitled "Why we Need More Empathetic and Compassionate Leaders (Ray Williams 2016) here are some things to look for when leaders practice empathy.

  • Greater levels of self-awareness;
  • Open-minded and open-hearted;
  • Regulate their emotions, particularly in crisis or stressful situations;
  • Intentionally respond to highly charged situations and people, rather than impulsively reacting;
  • Lead by example, rather than by direction;
  • Remove or decrease judgments and criticisms of others as motivational strategies;
  • Are mindful to the effect their words and actions have on others;
  • Spend a greater amount of time being emotional observers of others, rather than most of the time being initiators;
  • Are sensitive to others’ feeling and emotional states with their hearts, and not just spending most of the time in their heads in rational thought;
  • Are compassionate listeners, not just active listeners;
  • Demonstrate vulnerability and a willingness to admit mistakes.

Call me old fashioned, but I still believe that the President of the United States should model the way when it comes to his/her leadership behavior. Evidence shows that we may likely do even better as a country with a more consistently empathetic type of leadership than we now have. And, if we have to wait this out, let's hope that we can collectively rally together in future elections to put in office the kind of leaders who will take us back to a place of greater empathy and compassion for all. It shouldn't matter whether those future leaders identify themselves as Democrat or Republican, so long as they demonstrate the ability to empathize and identify with all Americans.