Is empathy the first leadership quality to nurture in us all?
In this blog, I argue that both misery and empathy love company. But that does not mean the Company should blindly love more empathy, or assume misery is therein opposed.
This blog is inspired by a response I posted on LinkedIn this weekend. Aimed towards a fabulously thought provoking article advocating more empathy. The premise of which was the celebration of what empathy presents as the most important power tool of leadership.
Tracey Brower, writing for Forbes, is a Sociologist. She writes terrific pieces – this one included. Sociology is one of those many subject areas our future research in projects’ needs to look at more closely. Look no further than the first people to identify the impending global financial crisis for evidence of that. This article, “Empathy Is The Most Important Leadership Skill According To Research”, gives a series of accounts of what better empathy looks like. And what harm a lack of empathy fosters. It makes a compelling case, but does it apply equally to us all?
My worry is not to those who lack empathy. My worry is to those that rely on its niceties too much. Specifically the imbalance possible when leaning too far into – opposed to not far enough toward – an empathetic perspective.
A second worry occurs to me too. What of the accomplished empathiser with less interest in benevolent cause – what separates the motivator from the master manipulator when it is only empathy that we seek to call?
The King and Queen in us all
This was another chance to explore a little of the King and/or Queen Archetype theorising of the Jungian psychoanalyst, Robert Moore. A little psychology to compliment the sociology – perhaps the two perspectives offer us a little more.
Our inner relationship and the outside world
My experience of management training, in the big corporates that have invested in my training over the years, is a focus on ensuring each of us was able to both understand our own traits better; and crucially, to then understand how different others under your charge may behave or think. Yet despite these sanguine lessons, our blind spots endure, as witnessed at every honest appraisal thereafter performed. We are all human after all.
Much more recently in my learning, this is where I have found the archetypal outlines of Jungian psychology helpful. I am far from convinced this mode of psychology is the pinnacle of this science in modern times. However, this is modelling that can still help explain our relationship to ourselves – the persona we present to the world, plus the active but hidden part we know, or the repressed part within that we may not be aware of at all. The Archetypal traits in their less welcome forms are outlined below as Tyrannical vs Weakling leaders, and used here as an oversimplified but recognisable range of relationship and traits we may knowingly or unwittingly take out into the world.
Self vs Other as a target of more love
There is upside potential to both self and other focus. I present below what good might come of each, and what Jungians would call the shadow archetype sitting at each pole. Applying to our relationship with ourselves, but perhaps also influencing how we engage with others.
Upside when in balance
Downside when imbalanced
driven, confident, outcome orientated, present to priority and optimisation of tasks
Tyrant King or Queen
arrogant, self obsessed, divisive, elitist, entitled. Arenas of fear, stress, and oppression. Teams of the silent and compliant, offering only good news and hiding the rest.
inclusive, people acuity, present to wider team impacts and playing to strengths
indecisive, reactive, naïve, no discipline or boundaries. Lack of vision or singular aim. Team inefficiency, apathy, tolerance of selfish others, and loss of team morale.
Empathy and misery both love a company
We all know what a tyrannical boss looks like. The self confident, self obsessed. me first, leader. Robert Moore presents this as the tyrant within. It need not be the person we typically see, this could be the momentary burst of rage to an otherwise docile soul. Or it maybe the accepted persona that then interacts this way in a leadership role.
What I present above is that there is an upside to being self orientated. The driven, focused, outcome orientated, energy that gets us through. We may not like it, but we can look back at successful outcomes and at least see what it was intended for.
We all know what the weakling boss looks like. The other-first carer, who is attendee to everyone’s needs. A good friend, but as the bastion of your career, is that any better than the tyrannical boss?
The committee decision maker, the indecisive ditherer. The more data please, consensus driven, enemy to none – enemy to none except the clarity of what is to be done.
Moore’s trick up his sleeve
An unsuspecting third may lurk here too. The master manipulator, turning empathy into self-serving need. Robert Moore would argue there are other energies in play here. Other inner archetypes taking a lead. Specifically he presents the learning and calculating part of us he calls the Magician.
He puts this archetype as opposing the King or Queen. If we have failed to balance this archetype then we have an imbalance of a different type. The needs of this Archetype are less interested in the service of leadership. But learnt empathy offers a means to know how to get more of what it wants.
Regardless of how Jungian we are prepared to relate, my point here is that empathy has more than possible benevolent use. Perhaps we need to think to whom we gift it to. Or how we bring more of those naturally gifted with it, more effectively to the fore.
The uneasy balancing of the two
Accordingly whenever I see a celebration of empathy I am cautious in my cheer. Sure, let’s be better at our knowing how to apply empathy. Especially to those of us who find it necessarily hard. But if empathy comes naturally, do these people so easily get to lead? Do we unwittingly mingle tyrants with sociopaths? Do we encourage benevolent empaths to think more of themselves?
I think we need to give this more attention than simply celebrate a trait. More empathy in the boardroom? Yes please. But perhaps our leadership training needs to bring more empaths towards the self, and less sociopaths above us all. This does not come from just training existing leaders with a retrofitted trait. This comes from careful understanding of the deeper psychology in play. And ensuring our critical control environments can rein in whatever comes our way.
Can projects of mind inform projects of management?
This is another strand of enquiry I am taking back into project thinking. Can the projects of self-improvement and self-development, including our individual developments into leadership, be shown to contribute to the outcomes of the projects this leadership is intended to serve? The modelling of psychology, and neuroscience, and beyond these Jungian ideas that not all agree.
The many and varied focuses on communication and modelling; coordination and collaboration; processes intended to preserve or change; conflict, distract, or renew. How much of this reflects these same organisational and management needs in the bigger projects of cooperation in our everyday lives? How well can one inform the other? And inform the controls and tools to compliment both. Projects | within projects, that define and connect us all.
Subscribe here, if you want to read a little more of this every day. I am currently blogging daily. As I return to university once again, this is part of my attempt to apply learning. And share it as I go. Influence, and be influenced by you.
In psychology we are required to look beneath the mask. This blog series is attempting to unmask some hidden parts of projects to engender a more collaborative way.