Leaders with power suffer deficits in empathy.

Research shows that personal power actually interferes with our ability to empathize. People who have power suffer deficits in empathy, the ability to read emotions, and the ability to adapt behaviors to other people. ~Lou Solomon

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons, Eric Puig, Danish Design Centre

I recently met with a potential client who is seeking someone to help them to better live out their values, specifically around diversity. During our initial conversation I provided an example of an intervention that I have found helpful with other clients. When they are ready (this typically isn’t in the first meeting), I’ll ask everyone in a group or team to identify two things for each person.

  • One thing that the team member contributes that makes the team better. The single biggest area of strength as it pertains to the impact on this group.
  • One thing that the team member does that sometimes hinders this team. One aspect they could improve upon.

They seemed a bit apprehensive by my suggested intervention. They asked if a subordinate would give feedback to their supervisor. Well, yes. In my opinion, if a supervisor isn’t ready to hear feedback from the people they supervise, then they really aren’t ready to be a supervisor. This is why people with power suffer deficits in empathy.

It Starts Small

According to Solomon, deficits in empathy start small. Leaders with power might throw their weight around, then demand special treatment. They practice isolated decision making – getting their way. Before you know it, they are using their power for their own benefit.

So what can leaders do if they think they might have crossed the line?

Solomon says, “leaders must be willing to risk vulnerability and ask for feedback.”

Asking for feedback doesn’t mean you are losing your power. It means you are using your power most effectively for the team and the organization. It’s one step to help keep you from abusing your power, and allowing you to maintain your ability to empathize.

Leaders Adapt Behavior to Other People

Another intervention I use frequently is I ask team members to spend a week intentionally looking for ways they can adapt their behavior to other people. This too can be challenging for leaders with power. They don’t spend much time thinking about what other people need from them, especially in terms of behaviors.

For example, a leader in power might be someone who is very comfortable forging ahead on a project with very vague direction. However, other people need more specific details to get started on a project. Neither behavior is right or wrong; they are simply different. It’s the leader’s responsibility to adapt their behavior in order for others to have the best chance possible to achieve success. In other words, empathize!

If you have power, have you checked your empathy deficit lately?

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Leaders have an attitude of gratitude in every touchpoint.

When a [leader] doesn’t have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity. A [leader] can almost be defined by his or her attitude toward gratitude. ~Elie Wiesel (Romanian-born American Jewish writer, professor, political activist, Nobel Laureate, and Holocaust survivor)

Thanksgiving is the time of year when we pause and have a heightened sense of gratitude. What comes to mind for me this week is a TED Talk by Christine Porath. She describes how Doug Conant, CEO of Campbell’s Soup Company turned the company around by being mindful of every touchpoint with employees.

Leaders are Tough-minded on Standards and Tenderhearted with People

Porath: When my friend Doug Conant took over as CEO of Campbell’s Soup Company in 2001, the company’s market share had just dropped in half. Sales were declining, lots of people had just been laid off. A Gallup manager said it was the least engaged organization that they had surveyed.

Within five years, Doug turned things around. Within nine years, they set all-time performance records and racked up awards, including best place to work. How did he do it? For Doug, it all came down to being tough-minded on standards and tenderhearted with people. For him, it’s all about these touchpoints, or daily interactions with employees, whether in the hallway, in the cafeteria, or in meetings. If he handled each touchpoint well, employees would feel valued.

Doug also showed employees that he was paying attention. He hand wrote over 30,000 thank-you notes. This set an example for other leaders. Leaders have about 400 of these touchpoints a day. Most don’t take long, less than two minutes each. The key is to be agile and mindful in each of these moments.

I’m in awe over the idea of 30,000 handwritten thank-you notes! I’m also in awe over the fact that a Holocaust survivor (Elie Wiesel) would say that a person can almost be defined by their attitude toward gratitude.

Imagine 400 touchpoints a day. Even if a leader only works 40 weeks a year, that’s 80,000 touchpoints! To be agile and mindful of those moments all throughout the year, not just the weeks falling between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. That’s a different type of leadership.

Grateful Leadership

Judith Umlas author of Grateful Leadership says “grateful leaders are those who see, recognize, and express appreciation and gratitude for their employees’ and other stakeholders’ contributions and for their passionate engagement, on an ongoing basis.”

Note: this is not an annual event around the holidays, it’s what grateful leaders do on an ongoing basis.

Want to evaluate your leadership? Ask yourself: What’s your attitude toward gratitude?

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What Leadership Teams and Chili Recipes Have in Common

One of the greatest mistakes of successful people is the assumption, “I am successful. I behave this way. Therefore, I must be successful because I behave this way!” The challenge is to make them see that sometimes they are successful in spite of this behavior.  ~Marshall Goldsmith

One of my favorite fall foods is chili. A year ago I discovered Turkey Pumpkin Chili, which has become my favorite. As you can probably imagine, the ingredients are a bit different from a more traditional chili. The tomato sauce is replaced with pumpkin puree and turkey instead of the common ground beef. Surprisingly, at least to me, the spices weren’t that different. So I decided to experiment and in addition to the typical chili spices I now add a little cinnamon and nutmeg. After a little tweaking, I’ve created a unique combination of flavors that I thoroughly enjoy.

What’s a chili recipe got to do with a leadership team?

I’ve received a number of calls recently from leaders wanting some help with their leadership teams because they just aren’t quite flowing very well.

I’ve discovered that when many leaders progress to senior leader positions, they believe they have “arrived.” The sentiment is very similar to the quote by Marshall Goldsmith – “I am successful. I behave this way. Therefore, I must be successful because I behave this way!”

Now, imagine a group of leaders who all feel that way. They are all bringing their “spice” to the recipe with full force. Is it really any wonder that the team isn’t flowing?

The hard work begins by helping these leaders recognize that every “team” has its own unique dynamic; just like every chili recipe has its own unique flavor. In order to get that flavor just right, some spices might need to be subtle and others need to be bold. This means that every leader on a team needs to be willing to adapt their behavior to fit that team.

If I was making traditional chili, I wouldn’t think of adding cinnamon or nutmeg, and I might add more chili powder than what I put in my turkey pumpkin chili. Because of the other ingredients I’m adding, the other spices have to be adjusted. Both chili recipes may taste wonderful, but the spices have to be tweaked to get the flavor just right for each one.

The same is true for teams!

Each time a member of the team changes, the recipe has been altered. That means every other team member may have to adapt their behavior so the team can be at its best – really flow. That doesn’t mean any team member’s behavior is wrong or bad (just like cinnamon and nutmeg are not bad spices), it just means it needs to be tweaked so this team can be in sync.

I have found this concept to be really hard for many leaders to graciously accept. They believe they are in their position because of their strengths, which is true. But today, leadership is not a solo act. Leadership team members need to bring their strengths and be willing to adapt, tweak, or modify to allow the leadership team to thrive.

As a Chinese Proverb states, “A wise man adapts himself to circumstances, as water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it.” Or, members of an effective team adapt their behavior, as the mix of spices in a chili recipe need to be tweaked to get a really great flavor!

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The Paradox of Leadership and Politics

One has to try to find compromises with mutual respect, but also with a clear opinion. That’s politics [and leadership] – always looking to find a common way forward. ~Angela Merkel

I wrote my first blog post on leadership in August of 2011. That means I’ve now blogged through a number of election cycles. I scanned my blog posts around previous elections and unfortunately, not a lot has changed. We seem to be stuck. Maybe even losing ground when it comes to Merkel’s perspective – “always looking to find a common way forward.”

When you think about it, through the electoral process we are collectively making some very significant decisions. Yet, the politicians aren’t appealing to our ability to make decisions through careful discernment. They are manipulating us through emotional appeals. Unfortunately, because that’s a very successful strategy when your primary goal is short-term: “to win.”

Author John P. Kotter begins Leading Change with this statement: “The single most important message in this book is very simple. People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.” All those “truths” about their opponents that candidates are blasting at us 24/7 to influence our feelings.

Real diversity is experiential capacity.

Quentin Schultze offered me the opportunity to read a manuscript for a book he’s now published, 30 Days to Great Communication for Leaders. I came across this sentence: “Real diversity is experiential capacity.”

“…diversity comes from the inside of people, not from the outside. Diversity has more to do with culture than color. Real diversity is experiential capacity. Perhaps we servant leaders have to stretch beyond contemporary notions of diversity that are limited by simplistic categories (30 Days to Great Communication for Leaders by Quentin Schultze).”

The more politicians keep us on their side, the less likely we will be to participate in real diversity as Schultze describes through experiential capacity. If politicians can limit our experiential capacity, they can more successfully influence our feelings. Hence, get our vote (a very short-term mindset).

Learn how to reason with one another.

During previous election cycles I’ve quoted N.T. Wright a number of times. Wright said, “We need to learn how to reason with one another. When you don’t have reason, you just collapse into a subhuman morass of non-engagement.” Wow, that still sounds all too familiar.

Leadership: always looking to find a common way forward.

Maybe there’s hope. Leadership from the bottom up. I stood in line this year to vote longer than any previous year. The line extended outside, in the rain, and yet everyone seemed to be taking the situation in stride. We followed the directions as the line weaved back and forth through the lobby to keep us dry. Not only were people coming out in record numbers, we were adding to our experiential capacity by engaging in conversation with people we didn’t know. We were all there to exercise our right “to vote” – to find a common way forward.

If as leaders we simply practice reasoning with one another and stretch our experiential capacity, I believe that “always looking to find a common way forward” may not be that far out of reach.

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Leaders rise above the fray and are fully present.

I decide, every day, to…open myself to the frustrations and failures of loving, caring to believe that failing in love is better than succeeding in pride. ~Eugene Peterson

Last week RNS reporter Jana Riess stated, “Eugene Peterson died yesterday (October 22). I wasn’t surprised at this death – RNS reported last week the he had entered hospice care – but I was surprised by my reaction to it.” I can relate, it’s been a week and I too am grieving a loss I didn’t anticipate.

For those who may not know Peterson, over the course of more than 10 years, “he lovingly crafted The Message,” a colloquial translation of the Bible. The Message has sold over 20 million copies.

I never met Peterson. I have only read about and listened to others describe his life. I believe I’m grieving because Peterson was one of the few influential individuals I can point to who was truly able to rise above the fray and be fully present. What an incredible example of leadership!

Some leadership experts would argue that leaders can rise above the fray to a point of denial, with their head stuck in the sand. I agree, that can happen. However, when a leader can rise above the fray and still be fully present, that’s powerful leadership.

Here are just a few quotes from Eugene Peterson to illustrate his life above the fray and fully present.

  • “We cannot be too careful about the words we use; we start out using them and they end up using us.”
  • “Speaking to people does not have the same personal intensity as listening to them. The question I put to myself is not ‘How many people have you spoken to this week?’ but ‘How many people have you listened to this week?”
  • “It’s your heart, not the dictionary, that gives meaning to your words.”
  • “A genuine leader will never exploit your emotions or your pocketbook.”
  • “An honest answer is like a warm hug.”
  • “Live generously.”
  •  “If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself.”
  • “Wisdom is the art of living skillfully in whatever actual conditions we find ourselves.”
  • “Intentions must mature into commitments if we are to become persons with definition, with character, with substance.”
  • “The primary practice of language is not in giving out information but being in relationship.”
  • “Summing up: Be agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, be humble. That goes for all of you, no exceptions. No retaliation. No sharp-tongued sarcasm. Instead, bless—that’s your job, to bless.”

Thank you, Eugene Peterson now among the saints, for guiding leaders toward living above the fray and fully present.

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