Neglected skills of a leader: humility and empathy

I recently wrote a multi-part series about how to argue better. I wrote it for anyone who wants to argue in a way that connects rather than divides, but I realized as I wrote that the same techniques could be used by leaders to become better at their work. Here were the steps:

  • Decide what it would take to change your mind
  • Choose the right partner to argue with – someone with whom the relationship is more important than the argument
  • Get curious, then confirm – make sure you understand their perspective and confirm it, before sharing your own
  • Build agreement – focus step-by-step on what you agree on, before tackling differences
  • Triangulation – frame things as “me + you vs. the problem” instead of going head-to-head
  • Explode labels – don’t let loaded words derail your conversation – make sure you know what you are both talking about

There are two main themes in play for all of these techniques: humility and empathy. Those without humility or empathy enter into every conversation with the attitude of “I’m right, and I don’t care what you think.” It’s hard to talk to or be around people with that kind of attitude.

And yet, leaders often lack both of these characteristics. There are plenty of stories of overconfident leaders who move forward with poorly considered plans, declare “mission accomplished” too soon, or refuse to consider alternative points of view – all signs of lack of humility. Similarly, we know of leaders who have no empathy for and have lost touch with the “front line” workers or their customers, and live in a world seemingly disconnected from that of ordinary people. There’s an entire show, Undercover Boss, devoted to exploiting this ignorance for the sake of entertainment. Every episode, there’s a new leader who is shocked – shocked! – at what their workers go through just by doing their jobs.

I can see why leaders aren’t naturally humble. Confidence is probably one of the traits that got them to where they are. Leaders need followers after all, and people are attracted to confident personalities, even if the confidence is unfounded. Confidence is also helpful to those further up the ladder, because confident employees seem to need less oversight and attention. Expressing too much doubt, on the other hand, can be judged as weakness or indecisiveness. Organizations spend more energy rewarding confidence than they do emphasizing the need for humility or caution.

Yes, leaders need to be willing to take risks, but there’s a difference between deciding that there is a risk that you are willing to accept and pretending that there is no risk at all. This type of over-confidence leads to arrogance and poor decision-making. Humility is the antidote. Think of it as “mature confidence,” being comfortable enough in your abilities that you can admit that you may be wrong in this particular instance.

Similarly, empathy is an easy thing for leaders to avoid. Empathy is the ability to see things from another’s perspective and understand their emotions. It is often confused with sympathy, which is the feeling of another’s emotions. Both of these can be viewed as weakness, which can make it harder for others to see you as a leader. In Western culture, “strength” is often equated with ignoring emotions, both in yourself and in others. But empathy is, in fact, not weakness, it’s having the strength to accept and face all the parts of the problem, even the messy ones. It only becomes weakness when it leads to toxic niceness, when the fear of hurting someone’s feelings stops you from doing what is otherwise the right thing.

Working with empathy, though, makes the work harder. Leaders have to make all sorts of decisions that affect people’s emotions: hiring and firing, bonuses and discipline, and other business choices. Dealing with the emotions involved is so inconvenient – isn’t it much easier to just pretend they don’t exist? And there are so many readily available explanations as to why you can’t – in fact shouldn’t – consider the feelings of others. A high-level manager once told me, “I don’t have time to think about people’s feelings. I am trying to make sure they keep their jobs. How are they going to feel if they are out of work?” It may be occasionally true that circumstances are too urgent to bother with emotions, but it’s also an easy excuse to let yourself off the hook from dealing with the challenging but real issues at hand. You can’t make the work easier just by ignoring what is inconvenient, and in any system that includes people, emotions matter.

Even though humility and empathy are important, the path of least resistance for a leader is probably to ignore them. Surrounded by those who have a vested interest in agreeing with you, having to make tough decisions about the work lives of those in your organization, it’s easy to feel that you don’t ever have to question your own decisions or try to take another’s perspective. But just like when trying to have better arguments, these skills are essential.

When your environment doesn’t naturally provide the impetus for something, you have to supply that impetus yourself. That’s where techniques and habits come in. You can use a checklist, adding a question of what would convince you to change your mind. You can get curious when you hear differing opinions, rather then defaulting to an “inform and redirect” leadership technique. You can replace executive decision making with consensus built on agreements, and work toward that by triangulating you and your team against the problem.

The only people who can afford to ignore humility and empathy are those who are always right and those doing work in which no one else’s thoughts or opinions matter. That’s certainly not me, and it’s probably not you. So unless you’re the singular genius who can ignore them, how are you going to incorporate humility and empathy into your work and life?


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One thought on “Neglected skills of a leader: humility and empathy

  1. A former boss used to say, “You can be ignorant or arrogant, but not both.” This led me to the question, what’s the difference between confidence and arrogance? This led me to the question, “whats the difference between between humility and meekness?”

    I think the confidence you describe, without humility, ignorant of other perspectives and solely focused on your own, is arrogance.

    I think the overpowering valuation of others’ views over your own is the definition of meekness.

    By integrating our perspective and intentions related to ourselves and others, we get to confidence with humility. Anything less is arrogant or meek. There is no singular genius. We are all human.

    Liked by 1 person

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