EMPATHY, YOUR MORAL COMPASS, AND LEADERSHIP

So you want to be an effective leader. Two of the most important and foundational attributes of great leaders are the ability to care about those around them (empathy) and the ability to make decisions in a consistent manner (your moral compass). 

 

First let’s look at empathy.  You can have too much empathy, and that can affect your ability to make effective business decisions.  The right business decisions do not always affect everyone in the organization in a positive manner, but the lack of making those decisions often affect more people in a negative manner in the long-run, up to and including in some instances the closure of the entire business and the loss of employment for all employees, possibly the worst possible outcome.   Leaders cannot allow an excess of empathy to affect their ability to make good, solid, fact-based business decisions. 

 

With that said, when decisions that affect people in a negative manner need to be made, they can be made in an empathetic manner.  Do you need to let good people go for the greater good?  Then make sure that they have strong transition support services available to them, and make sure you treat them with respect during the transition.  An early mentor of mine suggested that for every person you fire over your career, you should already have three interviews set up for them up on the date of their job loss.  Although I have been fortunate in that I’ve had to fire very few people in the course of my career, I’ve followed that advice in every case, and in every case, it has come back in the longer-term for the benefit of the individual who was put into transition as well as for the relationship between that person and myself. 

 

Looking at the other extreme, a complete lack of empathy is always negative.  In order to lead, people need to know that you actually care about them.  And you can’t fake this!  Nowhere is this more evident than in the military.  A classic example is when in the First World War the French Generals positioned themselves behind the front lines so that they didn’t need to see the human suffering that they were creating.  These decisions were foundational to the French Army Mutinies of 1917. 

 

You need to figure out a way to genuinely connect with your people.  You don’t need to like everything about a person, but there is always something that you have in common upon which you can build an empathetic relationship.  Look at their work space and then look at your work space an there will almost always be something important to each of you that will be in common.  Maybe it’s pets, or kids, or grandkids, or gardening, or sports, or martial arts, or music, or politics, or whatever else is top of mind for the person.  Build on that as a start.  And remember that empathy begets empathy.  It’s a two-way street, and all of a sudden you have a genuine human connection. 

 

Now let’s look at your moral compass.  There are two key questions here: 1) do you make decisions in a consistent manner (i.e. are you predictable), and 2) do the moral guideposts you use to make your decisions align with the guideposts of those who you lead?  Both are important, but being consistent and also having moral guideposts that align with your team is the best combination.  If your moral guidelines don’t agree with your team members' moral guidelines, and sometimes they won’t, then you need to at least be consistent.  Your team needs to know how you will react to a situation even if it’s not the same way they would react.  To have random differing responses to similar situations is the worst scenario because it brings fundamental uncertainty to those with whom you are entrusted to lead.  And they willabsolutely not follow you in that scenario. 

 

Finally, let’s look at how to two interrelate.  There is often confusion about these two aspects of leadership in that they are rolled into one concept.  In fact they are completely distinct.  You can be erratic in your responses and decision making while still genuinely caring for others, and you can be completely consistent in your decision making while not caring at all for others.  It is the combination of these two characteristics, empathy and a consistent moral compass that will lay the foundation for you as an effective leader.  While there are also other attributes of great leaders, these two are foundational.  Don’t lose sight of either, and be sure to intentionally care for each on an every day basis.

 

Scot Berkey

Managing Director, FullPeak LLC