Leading with Courageous Empathy

Courageous empathy is communicating that incredibly healing message of, “You’re not alone.” ~Brene’ Brown

I try to avoid political topics when blogging about leadership. I’m going to make a slight exception today. There was one response, in particular, during the most recent Democratic Presidential Debate that caught my attention. It appears that I wasn’t the only one who took notice of this answer.

The last question of the debate posed by Anderson Cooper, I think, was intended to be a sort of trick question. One that the candidates very likely had not prepared for and one that could reveal more about their character and personal values than simply asking about personal values.

Cooper described how Ellen DeGeneres recently defended her friendship with George W. Bush and then asked the candidates to speak about a friendship that would surprise us and what impact it’s had on them and their beliefs.

Some responses were vague and overly generalized. Likely because they were either thrown off by the question or simply couldn’t think of a specific example.

An Empathetic Answer

Then there was Andrew Yang’s answer. He shared a detailed story about a specific voter he met while on the campaign trail named Fred. Fred was a trucker and an avid Trump supporter. Yang described how Fred let him ride in his truck for hours. How he learned that Fred had spent time in jail and shared his experiences trying to get other people off drugs. At the close of his story Yang revealed that Fred is now supporting his campaign – it was a presidential debate after all.

Yes, in the end, it was a political answer. However, what stood out to me was that Andrew Yang took the time, and patience, to listen first. He heard about the real life challenges that Fred faced. Yang spent hours listening. He practiced empathy. Using Cory Booker’s mantra, Yang practiced, “courageous empathy.” I call it courageous because Fred was very different from Yang, on many levels. This wasn’t a five-minute conversation while glad-handing in a cafe. He gave Fred the space to hold a view different from his own. It was time spent putting himself in someone else’s shoes.

Truth be told, I don’t think Yang has much of chance to be our next president. However, how he was able to answer that single question, stood out to me as a moment of leadership. Cory Booker defines courageous empathy as believing you are right but still working to understand the thoughts and feelings of those you disagree with.

Leading with Courageous Empathy

Courageous empathy may not be a platform that gets the next president elected, but it is absolutely worthy of consideration for effective leadership.

As I stated in my last post, “people are different, not less,” a concept that is easy to accept intellectually and surprisingly difficult to put into practice. Even for leaders, maybe especially for leaders.

Leaders practicing courageous empathy – a message of healing.

The Critical First Step to Build Effective Leadership Teams

I am different, not less. ~Dr. Temple Grandin

I frequently start training on building effective leadership teams with the trailer for the movie Temple Grandin. Temple, born in 1947, has autism. Temple faced a great deal of ridicule because we had little understanding of autism in the 1940s. Her mother’s mantra was, “Temple, you are different, not less,” which is repeated in the trailer. This phrase has also become a tagline for autism awareness. Why do I start building effective leadership teams training with this mantra?

I start with the mantra, people are different, not less because that concept is easy to accept intellectually and surprisingly difficult to put into practice.

I’ve interviewed a lot of leaders and leadership teams over the years. One thing I’ve noticed is that people consistently believe that others would be better leaders if they modeled behaviors that reflected their own preferences. Now, people don’t come right out and tell me, “Joe would be a better leader if he was more like me.” It’s far subtler.


I will listen to someone describe how “Joe” can improve his leadership and then I realize this person is describing their own strengths or natural tendencies. For example, I was recently working with a leader, “Joe,” who is very thoughtful, careful, and can quickly spot potential issues with any idea or suggestion. When I interviewed his colleague, “Sam,” he said “Joe” could improve his leadership by being more visionary, have more of a forward-looking perspective. That certainly could be true. However, “Sam” is also describing his own strengths. As you can imagine, when I then interview “Joe” about “Sam,” “Joe” now says that “Sam” would be a better leader if he wasn’t so impulsive and was more thoughtful and careful.

I’ve tried to think of a scenario I’ve encountered where this was not the case, and so far I can’t think of any examples.

What do leaders need to be more aware of?

  1. Leaders need to be more aware of their own biases. We are all biased toward our own behavioral style. Yes, you are. I see this all the time.
  2. In order to lead, effectively, leaders need to adapt or adjust their behavioral style to others.

People are different, not less. If we really practiced this, then why does nearly everyone I interview believe that their leader would be more effective if they demonstrated a behavioral style that is very similar to their own? Because we are biased!

The critical first step to building more effective leadership teams is to recognize and accept the fact that everyone on that team is different, and different doesn’t mean less.

Leaders and Suicide

What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversation. ~Glenn Close

Leaders and suicide. You might be thinking, “wow, that’s an awfully dark topic,” and that’s the point. Just as Glenn Close stated, “mental health needs more unashamed conversation.” We need to take it out of the darkness and bring it into the light.

Maybe it’s just a part of growing older, but the number of people I have personally known who have ended their lives by suicide now requires two hands to count. And that’s too many. What has also struck me is that most of the people I have personally known, have been leaders.

Suicide Awareness

This topic has been especially highlighted for me because not only is September suicide awareness month, but the day before World Suicide Prevention Day two leaders ended their lives by suicide and I had connections to both. NBC News: Suicides by Two Mental Health Advocates Serve as Grim Reminder

It’s easy to see someone in a prominent leadership role and to assume that they have no personal challenges. Even more so, I think many leaders feel pressured to come across and act as if they have no challenges. Almost, as if they aren’t actually human. It’s only been in recent years in the study of leadership that vulnerability has been considered an attribute, as opposed to a detriment, of effective leadership.

But the vulnerability attached to admitting depression or suicidal thoughts still seems to haunt some leaders. Just because you are in a leadership role doesn’t mean you are immune from the mental health challenges associated with suicidal thoughts.

Here’s what a college president said after learning about one of the recent suicides I mentioned. “As I confront my own grief and bewilderment, I am also becoming more aware of what suicide does and does not mean, and how to respond. I am learning to avoid judgment and not to seek simplistic explanations… I am learning that it is important to talk openly about suicide.”

How do you talk openly about suicide, even with a leader?

Here’s what the Mayo Clinic recommends. Be sensitive, but ask direct questions, such as:

  • How are you coping with what’s been happening in your life?
  • Do you ever feel like just giving up?
  • Are you thinking about dying?

The Clinic goes on to say, “Asking about suicidal thoughts or feelings won’t push someone into doing something self-destructive. In fact, offering an opportunity to talk about feelings may reduce the risk of acting on suicidal feelings.”

Forbes contributor Naz Beheshti stated earlier this month, “In spite of increased awareness, suicide continues to be a major public health problem in the United States, and around the world. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S., where the rate is higher than at any point since World War II. The majority of suicides in the U.S. are among working age adults. Working age suicides have increased 34% in the U.S. in the years 2000-2016, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

We all need to come out of the darkness, including leaders, maybe even especially leaders.  We need more unashamed conversation about suicide.

In 2017, 47,173 Americans died by suicide. There were twice as many suicides (47,173) in the U.S. as there were homicides (19,510).

The Domino Effect of Insecure Leaders

Insecure leaders are like fireworks with a lit fuse. It’s only a matter of time until they explode, and when they do, they hurt everyone close to them.  ~The John Maxwell Company

Confident or insecure—sometimes it can be a fine line between the two. But once a leader has crossed over from confident to insecure the dominoes begin to fall, quickly. Over the years of consulting I’ve observed a pattern. When some people are elevated into leadership positions, their insecurities take over and while they think they are demonstrating confidence, that’s not what those on the receiving end see or feel.

I took a few minutes to research what others have experienced in comparison to my own encounters with leaders who are insecure. Here are four questions that seem to be a common perspective.

How do you handle conflict?

Are you going to an extreme? In other words, are you avoiding conflict by being passive-aggressive? Or, are you going to the other extreme and do you see every scenario as a potential conflict? As Sam Luce said in his blog post 5 Signs You Might Be an Insecure Leader, “They are either too soft and squishy or harsh and uncaring. Secure leaders handle conflict with truth and grace working together, because relationships matter more than being right.”

Do you overcompensate?

Jeanne Sahadi in CNNMoney said it well. “Insecurity can be disguised by bullying, arrogance, or power-mongering.” Do you believe that you are superior? Is your own self-importance taking a priority over building relationships? Is your title more important to you than letting others see your authentic self? If you said yes to any of these questions, you may be overcompensating.

Are you hiding in your office?

I like this one because it’s kind of obvious. I’ve seen leaders almost literally circle their wagons by bringing their direct reports as physically close as possible and even putting up physical walls or doors to make it more difficult for employees to physically reach them. These leaders always seem to have so much work to do that they just don’t have the time to get out of their office and engage with employees. This question isn’t metaphorical, it’s literal, are you hiding in your office?

Are you respectful of others?

Respect—I love that word because it can cover so much territory. Everything from not helping others grow, being a know-it-all, surrounding yourself with people you can control, considering anyone who disagrees with you “disloyal,” etc. Simply put, the word respect means: admiration, high opinion, reverence, value, esteem. Respect is not the absence of treating people poorly; it’s a word packed full of intentionality and deliberate behavior. Are you respectful of others?

Is your confidence on solid ground or are you slipping toward insecurity? We all slip now and then, but catching yourself is the first step to stop the domino effect of insecurity.

Want to get your dissertation done faster?

If you’re reading this, then I’m guessing that the headline got your attention. I don’t know anyone who’s working on a dissertation who wouldn’t like to get it done faster. It’s an arduous undertaking.

Here’s the secret.

So, you might not like the answer. It’s simple. Work on your dissertation. Every. Day.

This is something I discovered personally through trial and error. I would block off chunks of time – a weekend, a couple of evenings, etc. But my progress seemed so very slow. After a few months of sluggish headway, I realized that I spent a good portion of my dedicated time revisiting and “catching up” on what I had completed during my last chunk of time.

I needed to find a flow to keep the momentum going.

That’s when I decided to try working on my dissertation every day. Knowing that on some days that might only be 15 minutes and on other days it could be six hours. While it took a great deal of discipline to create this habit, I also felt as if I had stumbled upon a goldmine.

What to do in 15 minutes?

If I only had 15 minutes what could I do? I could always spend 15 minutes searching for more sources on a specific topic. If I had folder full of articles and other resources, I could spend 15 minutes scanning one of the articles and highlighting potential quotes. I could take a few minutes to cleanup my growing reference list and make sure I was adhering to APA style (the style required by my program).

When I started to see my progress it fueled my fire! Even though it’s been a number of years, I can still remember traveling for work to San Jose, CA. What a wonderful city to visit. But I chose to spend the evening in my hotel room, glued to my laptop, researching and organizing sources. Even more amazing, I didn’t mind, because I could finally see real progress! I was addicted to the momentum my daily routine had created.

Now you could easily say, that worked for you, but I can’t imagine working on my dissertation every day. I too wondered if I was an outlier and had created my own crazy strategy. I’ve discovered just the opposite. As I read books, articles, and blog posts from other dissertation coaches, I read the very same advice. Work on your dissertation every day.

If I were to do this again (and no, I have no plans for a second dissertation), I would likely take it up a notch. I would not only work on it every day, I would also schedule time on my calendar and identify exactly what I want to accomplish during that time. I might write something like secure five sources supporting my overarching theory of adult education, or read three articles in my lifelong learning & leadership folder and highlight the potential quotes.

Get even faster!

Not only would this let me see my progress in more detail. It would significantly increase the likelihood that I would actually do it! Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson said, “When people engage in the right kind of planning, their success rates go up on average between 200 and 300 percent.” Putting very specific tasks that you can complete in that time frame on your calendar is part of that “right kind of planning.”

So, work on your dissertation. Every. Day. Put your specific tasks on your calendar. Watch your progress accelerate before your eyes. Get your dissertation done faster!