By Terry Pearce
However you wish to express it, empathy is necessary for leadership. Ignoring feelings and using intimidation can work for a while to accomplish tasks, but it will not inspire real contribution, especially in today’s creativity-driven environment, and this distinction between merely assigning work and inspiring contribution has been active for a while. What does this have to do with leadership? Everything.
In the mid 90s, I was coaching a top-level executive who had as much potential as anyone I had met. His track record in getting results was sterling; it included assuming responsibility for three very large operations in three very large companies, all within a seven-year period. He had international experience and an advanced degree from a prestigious university. He was one of the smartest, quickest people I had encountered. He also had one of the highest needs of anyone I had met to satisfy his enormous ego, and he demonstrated no empathy or appreciation for others.
Unfortunately, his communication reflected his hubris. The only emotions he could express at work were frustration, impatience, and anger. Rather than acknowledging these as signs of his own drive to succeed that might need modification as he gained more responsibility, he spewed them out indiscriminately in increasingly heavy doses to those who worked for him. At the zenith of his career, he was responsible for nearly 70% of the operations and 80% of the people in the company. His default was to engender fear, not hope; insecurity, not confidence.
In the short term, the results of his group were excellent. They exceeded even the most optimistic forecasts of the strategists. In the wake of his short-term success, he was hoping to be promoted to run the company, and as a step toward that possibility, he asked for some feedback on his ability to lead. A colleague administered a 360-degree feedback instrument to the executive’s direct reports.
The results were predictable. While this executive was at the top of the “competence” ranking, he was at the bottom of the “connection” ranking. His style of communicating not only engendered fear in those who encountered him, it also demoralized many of his charges.
In the debrief of the responses to the instrument, the executive asked the right question: “Do I have to change to be successful?” My colleague and I replied almost simultaneously, “No, unless you want to stay here.” He did not change, but left under duress shortly thereafter, totally unable to take advantage of his exceptional knowledge of the business and his ability to hold people accountable, talents that were totally neutralized by his inability to engender trust. He went on to start another enterprise that skyrocketed in the beginning and died when it needed energy from others to continue to grow.
This profile is not unusual for turnaround specialists in sports, business, or politics. When operations are in disarray, intimidation from a strict, no-nonsense autocrat can indeed turn people’s attention sharply to their responsibilities. But this intense pressure for accountability isn’t enough to sustain success for the long term. Only in acknowledging our own feelings can we recognize and acknowledge others’ feelings. And only then can a leader develop the bond of trust necessary for commitment and continued contribution.
Becoming Aware and Wary of Self-Importance
Understanding our own emotions and developing empathy toward others also expose our own egos and our individual need for recognition. Everyone wants to be recognized, but Jim Collins, in his research on leadership that brought companies from good to great, emphasizes this aspect of leadership: “Leadership is about creating a climate where the truth is heard and the brutal facts confronted.”
Being able to create this kind of climate requires a high degree of emotional intelligence, and a willingness to give up the central role of hero or heroine in the organization. In the year 2000, Tom Murphy was chief information officer of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. in Miami, Florida. He had enjoyed a meteoric career and had jumped from job to job fixing troubled organizations.
He rapidly assessed the IT team at RCCL, and reorganized, and began to get results. They won Department of the Year in 1999, consecutive Best Places to Work in IT awards in 2000 and 2001, and multiple honors for innovation and web excellence. Unlike many turnaround specialists, Tom was not an emotional cripple. He had a gregarious personality, and approached his job with passion and commitment to exceeding customer expectations. But as he later realized, the focus was always on him.
In early 2001, I met him at the first session of an executive course in values clarification, leadership, and culture. Tom demonstrated a quick wit and with it a sharp tongue, and yet he had the capacity to goad others on to greater participation than they would otherwise have been capable of. While I liked him immensely and felt that he had substantial talent and energy, I noticed that he managed to maintain the intellectual respect of the group, and that he also stayed on the outside, not really engaging personally.
This is what Tom told me about the effect of his experience in the training:
My style, called a lightning rod or “Organizational Identification” by Harvard’s Abraham Zaleznik, helped IT to overcome strong negative perceptions on the part of the business and strong internal challenges from early on. There is power in getting people to identify with you so strongly that you become a constant presence in their thinking. When you become an object of identification to your team, when you allow them to use you like that, the result is enormous cohesion.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that this approach has unseen ramifications that can negatively impact the leadership team, management group, and IT’s overall performance over time. If the group becomes overly reliant on a single source for energy, passion, and vision, where does it go when that source is no longer available?
As a result of this realization, Tom made a decision to stay at RCCL and work to develop the people who worked with him. In making that commitment to his team, he was able to become more authentic in his communication, and, in his words, “discuss issues that we would not have otherwise discussed.” He adds, “As we started dealing with one another on a different level, our trust grew. We were drawn closer to each other at a personal level as well.” It was by exercising emotional intelligence that he made a major step forward in leadership.
Good leaders get people to work for them. Great leaders get people to work for a cause that is greater than any of them—and then for one another in service of that cause. By shifting the focus of his leadership, adopting the practice of introspection and authenticity, Tom has delivered more than results. He has delivered a group of people who want to struggle together to accomplish something none could do alone. Tom’s story demonstrates the first two principles of this work—"Discovering What Matters" and "Deepening Emotional Awareness": recognizing who he is, being appropriately vulnerable, emotionally resonating with others, regulating his process, and responding rather than reacting.
People come to this kind of learning individually and—as I’ve personally discovered—sometimes with great effort. Some learn earlier than others, usually because their crucible is hotter, their experience more intense.
Building this emotionally intelligent aspect of communication into your fundamental message will shift your good idea to a foundation for your inspirational interaction with others. The decision to lead has to include a decision to get to know your emotional makeup, recognize and respect emotions when they arise, communicate to them responsibly, and develop the empathy necessary to relate to others on this same plane.
This article is excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Leading Out Loud: A Guide for Engaging Others in Creating the Future, 3rd Edition by Terry Pearce, Copyright © 2013.
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