Employing Empathy

“I think we all have empathy.  We may not have enough courage to display it.”  -Maya Angelou

Empathy is a word that is gaining a lot of attention, especially in the leadership world.  And for that reason, it is important for us to build a good, strong understanding of just what empathy truly is…

First, we need to understand that empathy, while often used interchangeably, is not the same thing as sympathy.  We will utilize Dictionary.com to sift these differences out a bit more. According to Dictionary.com; 

”Both empathy and sympathy are feelings concerning other people.  Sympathy is literally ‘feeling with’ – compassion for or commiseration with another person.”

“Empathy, by contrast, is literally ‘feeling into’ – the ability to project one’s personality into another person and more fully understand that person.”

“You feel empathy when you’ve ‘been there’, and sympathy when you haven’t.”

This definition is a good starting point for understanding, and gives us a glimpse into why empathy is incredibly important and necessary to be effective as a twenty-first century leader.

In all facets of their work, leaders have to be able to not only understand, but to see and feel from the perspective of another.  To see and feel as that person sitting in the chair across the table or desk from you, to ‘feel into’ their perspective.

For, as a leader, empathy isn’t only in trying to place yourself in the shoes of another, it’s realizing that what you do as a leader influences and impacts that experience, their experience.

Acknowledging that level of influence and impact is a gap that many leaders fail to close, let alone attempt to cross.  And for that reason, chasms form, chasms between leaders and the people and the organizations they lead.

Empathy serves as the bridge that crosses that chasm, closes that gap.

You might even say, while we don’t always readily notice, the main differentiator between sympathy and empathy is in how those words serve, from self to others.  Sympathy has an inward focus, it is something you gather from others.  While empathy incorporates an outward flow, it something that you project towards others.  And while it might appear subtle, it is an incredibly important difference.

And which is why empathy is and remains a necessity for leaders to effectively serve their organizations and those within…

Which may be summed up through these words from Daniel Goleman from his work Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships

“Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion.  When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large.  But when we focus on others, our world expands.  Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.”


Model The Way

Leading isn’t just standing at the front of the field pointing the way forward…it requires walking that field, creating a path that others can see and follow…

We’ve all had the experience at one time or another of being lost…of losing our way.  And for some reason, it is one of those things we find difficult to admit…to ourself, let alone someone else.  So, instead, we waste inordinate amounts of time walking or driving around…telling ourself that we are almost there, not far away.  When we know deep down inside, it would be much easier to put our pride aside and just ask someone for directions, for a little help.

And when we finally do pull over or stop to ask for directions…

We are often supplied with a set of directions that leave us more confounded, confused and frustrated than we were before we asked.  We’ve all been there…”Drive two blocks, take a left, then a quick right, then another left at the old brick lumber yard…”  “Head down this hallway, take the second left, walk past the conference room, take another left, and it will be your third door on the right.

So, instead of the directions being helpful, it actually causes higher levels of anxiety and stress…while, still leaving you just as lost and confused as you were before asking.

Except, when that one person you stop to ask, says…

Hey, let me show you.”  “Just a minute, I will take you there.”  “Follow me, I will show you the way.

Think of the relief you feel when you hear those words…”I will show you the way.”  How quickly it deescalates your stress and anxiety of being lost.  How much better you feel immediately.

Which does not change the fact that you still have to get to the destination on your own.  But, now you have some support, some direction.

Which is why it is not only important for leaders to tell the way…they have to show the way. “Leaders go first” is not just a mantra…it is an action.  It is necessary.

Great leadership is not only determined by influence, integrity, character, courage, honesty, humility, determination and service…it also requires credibility.

And leadership credibility is not attained through our words…rather, it is gained through our actions.  As they say, when our “walk matches up with our talk.”  

What many leaders fail to understand and acknowledge is that we are what we model.  The best leaders don’t just know how to tell the way…they know how to model and show the way.  They don’t demand of others what they are unwilling to do themselves.

Because they understand accountability to expectations begins with them…

Organizational cultures become imbalanced and oppositional…when we try to hold others accountable to expectations we are unwilling to “own” ourselves.

Is Change A Matter Of Keeping Up With The Joneses

It is difficult to build momentum as an individual, a team, or even an organization…if we are ‘scarcity’ focused.

Covey told us to “Begin with the End in Mind“.  The Heath Brothers talked about “the Elephant, the Rider, and the Path“.  Daniel Pink believes “It all comes down to Selling“.  And W. Edwards Deming reminded us that “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.

We all understand that change is hard, difficult…uncomfortable.  And we also know at the end of the day, whether we want to admit it or not, change is inevitable.  Even necessary.  It is a unavoidable part of living life.

So, no matter how we want to frame it, describe it, phrase it, or depict it…change requires some form, type, act, or process of transformation.  It requires doing different. 

However, no matter how many varied descriptions we have, the one saying we don’t usually equate with change is…”Keeping up with the Joneses“.

But we should…

For, “keeping up with the Joneses” is an integral player in our modern day human condition.  We have this unending need to compare ourselves, our stuff, our jobs, our teams, our organizations…even our countries.

And do not think for one minute this unending need escapes the economic powers that be.  Our intrinsic need to “keep up with the Joneses” has turned us into walking billboards.  It has infiltrated all facets of our lives…from Nike stripes, to Levi tags, and even Mercedes hood ornaments.  It effects what we wear, what we drive, even where we live.

We live in a constant state of comparison…

And it can be an obsession, as well as a mindset.  And not just in what we wear, drive, or live…but in our professional lives as well.  “Keeping up with the Joneses” very often becomes a way of benchmarking ourselves and our organizations.  The problem is that very seldom do we recognize it for what it is…an ongoing need to compare ourselves and our organizations.

And when we apply “keeping up with the Joneses” thinking to our organizations…very often we move to the “less” side, to the “cup is half full” way of viewing our ourselves and our organization.  We have this tendency to see others as doing better, accomplishing more, achieving at a faster rate…and very often without any merit to back up these assertions.  We always want to believe “the grass is greener on the other lawn“.

Which tends to play out in a “scarcity” mindset…

Keeping up with the Joneses” and our unending need to compare takes us down that “scarcity” path…often leaving us frustrated with where we are at, the progress we are making, and where we stand compared to the organization next door.

Comparing will always leave us feeling like…we never have enough, look good enough, are smart enough, tall enough, happy enough, etc.  When we spend our time comparing ourselves and our organizations, we never gain or get to a place of fulfillment.

And we end up accepting that “scarcity” mindset…

When we rid ourselves of the “keeping up with the Joneses” way of thinking, when we are able to move ourselves and our organizations beyond external comparisons and the “scarcity” mindset…we are able to put on a better lens for viewing change and change processes.

For change is not about comparison or benchmarking ourselves to others…rather, it is about determining and benchmarking ourselves towards our own vision, our own goals, and the change we are seeking for ourselves and our organization.

In the end, remember that change is not a competitive sport…even though we sometimes have a tendency to treat it like it is.

Our Armchair Quarterbacks

“Everyone has very strong opinions.  Education is one of those topics that runs very deep with people…”  -Sir Ken Robinson

I believe that one of the great joys we derive from watching professional sports is not only in the competition and stories that evolve during the games…it is the opportunity to serve as the “armchair quarterback”.  From the joy of celebrating a hard fought victory, to venting our frustration from the choice of calls coming from the sidelines, as well as the plays made on the field.  We love to wave our arms wildly in the air, ranting and raving about what is going on with “my” team.  “Who made that call?”  “What were they thinking?”  “Even I could have made that play.”  And on and on…  Very often being a spectator is not really the case, at all.

Nor do the referees escape the wrath of our sport “expertise”…

And the more knowledge and time spent involved with or playing the sport…the better equipped we “know” we are to dole out our “armchair quarterback” advice.  We’ve been there and we know.

Why can’t the players and coach see what we see, often becomes our game time rallying cry…

Which may be the very reason we have game time commentators.  With their replays, X’s and O’s, and magic on screen markers, they take us through the positives and negatives of those important plays.  They give us more clarity into the game…why or why not a choice was made?  Why or why not it was a good choice?  Why that play was chosen in that situation?  It is their job to provide us that increased clarity, into the game, a play, as well as the choices made or not made.

And very often, much of their commentary provides in-depth information into decisions and plays that were made from a knowledge well that we were not able to draw from…about the team, the players, and coach we may not have been privy, too.  But it is that very information that provides us clarity into decisions made, and why.

Plays, decisions and calls become clearer when we gain access to more information, more learning…

Which is an incredibly important lesson for us as educational leaders to internalize and understand…transparency isn’t just about being open, it is about being clear.

Most of our stakeholders are like that “armchair quarterback”…and they have been well-equipped with thirteen years of experience and training to fall back on when questioning a “call” or a “decision” made.  And while everyone’s experience may be similar, they are also quite different and unique.  So they bring their own perspective and vision of how school should look…from the classroom, to the lunchroom, playground, and office.  From discipline to awards…all stakeholders have their own idea of what “play” should be made, and why.

And as educational leaders, when we make decisions without being “open”, without being “clear”, without laying the necessary groundwork for clarity…when we fail to provide necessary and needed information and learning around “the why” of a decision…then we have to expect for the “armchair quarterback” come out in our stakeholders.  It is only natural.

Lack of understanding and clarity fails to create commitment.  And in most cases, it tends to create frustration, confusion and chaos.

Especially, when any of those changes go against the prevailing idea of how school should be, look, and do.  As leaders, when we are not willing to understand and acknowledge the perceptions of others…it is very difficult to lead any type of change process or movement.

The more information we provide, the more insight into the decisions that were made and why, the more clarity and understanding we create for our stakeholders.  While it may not gain you all the support you are looking and searching for…it will give stakeholders clarity and understanding into why a decision may be needed and necessary.  Even if the stakeholders don’t necessarily agree with that decision or change.

Why is this so important?

In education, much like sports, we have a wide range of stakeholders.  Stakeholders who are very familiar with school and have their own idea of how a school should look and run.  As leaders, we have to be able to persuade people towards necessary and needed change.  The more ingrained their mindset is about certain things…the harder it is to create that change without pushback.

As a leader, you have to decide if you are going to lay the groundwork to create commitment around change…or if you are going to plow and force your way through and be willing to face the inevitable pushback that will occur.

As educational leaders, we have to serve in the same capacity as those sports commentators.  We acknowledge that we will face “armchair quarterbacks” and those who question “decisions” and “calls” that are made.  And that is not a problem, it is natural.  We want people involved in the process…but, we also want them to be equipped with understanding and clarity around those very same “calls” and “decisions”.

Which is why it’s so important for leaders to be very intentional in laying the ground work of clarity and understanding for changes being made and why those changes are necessary and needed and for the overall benefit of the students and their learning.  When that is done, change will roll a little smoother…

But when the groundwork isn’t laid, when clarity and understanding are not created…then don’t be surprised when the “armchair quarterbacks” show up in droves for the game.

In one way or another, we are all “armchair quarterbacks“…whether it is sports, education, politics, or a variety of other interests where we find ourselves deeply engaged and invested.

In the end, whether people agree with a decision or not, you want them to understand the decision or change, and the reasons behind it.  Which is what transparency really is…clarity.  And you want them to be able to remain fans.  Just like sports fans…we don’t always agree with a call, with a play, with a decision or a coaching move…but, we still find ways at the end of the day to support our team.  Leaders should create those same conditions.

You want people to say…”I saw that coming, great play” more than “Why did they do that?” or “Why on earth would they make that change?”  And to get that first response, takes diligent time and effort.

Our Organizational Elephants

The thing about organizations…they are slow to forget.

Each day we wrestle with three elephants in our organizations…the one in the room, the one that never forgets, and sometimes, even the one we have to eat.

And as leaders, it is important we understand each one and the part they play.

The first elephant we are all too familiar with…it likes to make its presence known even when we don’t want to recognize or acknowledge it.  It walks right in and sets itself up in the middle of the room.  It doesn’t try to hide or conceal itself.  So, even though we might act like we don’t see it, try to pretend it’s not there…in actuality, all that does is make it worse.  The more we ignore this elephant, the more it grows.  Bigger and badder…until it eventually overwhelms the room and everyone in it.

The second elephant is much less noticeable…

But no less bigger.  It just has a tendency to set up residence in our mind, rather than in the middle of the room.  This elephant is our organizational memory.  The problem with this elephant is that too many leaders have a tendency to invoke what we might refer to as organizational amnesia.  They have a tendency to forget or cast a different light on what the organization and those within it are more than willing to resurface and rehash.

This tendency towards organizational amnesia causes immense frustration.  For the people who were there, for those in the organization who went through that time…it remains seared and fresh in their memory.  An elephant that can’t be ignored.  Inability to attend to our organizational memory will build, eventually causing further problems and frustrations, especially if the leadership has a less than real reflection of what has been done in the past.

While the first elephant can be found in the room (problems), the second in our mind (memories)…the third is often served up on a plate.  You might say this is the authenticity elephant.

When leaders truly attend to the first two elephants…sometimes they have to admit that mistakes, poor choices and even bad decisions were made.  And whether these were within the leaders control or outside their sphere of influence, often makes no difference.  Sometimes, leaders need to own up and eat the elephant…and very often one bite at a time.  Neither pleasant nor easy…yet, often necessary for an organization to clean the slate and move forward in a positive way.

Leaders don’t get a choice on which elephant they want to tackle…they have to be willing to wrestle all three.  And sometimes, simultaneously.  

Which is why the real work of leadership is neither glitzy or glamorous…it is often the very opposite.