Is EMPATHY really the root of good leadership, or is it a weed that chokes it?

Professor of Psychology and Cognitive science at Yale University, Paul Bloom wrote a very interesting piece on Empathy recently.  The part that ruffled many feathers among his colleagues and the public (including mine) is right there in the title. He’s against it.

Bloom’s piece, and the responses from many noted people in the field, is a fascinating journey into a topic that affects many people’s personal and professional lives.  It’s also core business for teachers.  If you are interested in how your thoughts about others (especially students) direct your actions, then I highly recommend the trip.

Personally, I’ve always considered the ability to empathise with followers to be a core skill of leaders, In fact, if you are going to exert influence in an ethical fashion, empathy is a must.  Paul Bloom disagrees:

 “Most people see the benefits of empathy as too obvious to require justification. This is a mistake.”

Admittedly, my concept of the importance of empathy comes from an examination of leaders that dispense with it, AKA psychopaths.  For example; the sport coach who desires the win no matter the cost to players, the playground politicians who ridicule fellow students to elevate their own status, or the acting head of drama that sees no fault in using a student death as the subject of the school musical.

Another psychologist, Simon Baron Cohen, author of the 2011 Book The Science of Evil sees empathy this way.  Paul Bloom opposes his view directly in this article.

Bloom cites Baron-Cohen’s example of Hannah, a young therapist who even outside of her practice, exhibits a constant awareness of the emotions present in the people around her.  Bloom believes this kind of behavior to be a problem:

“Hannah’s concern for other people doesn’t derive from particular appreciation or respect for them; her concern is indiscriminate and applies to strangers as well as friends. She also does not endorse a guiding principle based on compassion and kindness. Rather, Hannah is compelled by hyperarousal—her drive is unstoppable. Her experience is the opposite of selfishness but just as extreme. A selfish person might go through life indifferent to the pleasure and pain of others—ninety-nine for him and one for everyone else—while in Hannah’s case, the feelings of others are always in her head—ninety-nine for everyone else and one for her.”

The penny dropped for me here.  I have met people like Hannah before, but not Hannah the therapist, Hannah the teacher.  Young, idealistic, popular with students because of the genuine care she shows them, but drowning in her own perceived inability to guide them to their full potential.  Hannah might be the kind of teacher that burns out in 5 years and leaves the profession for good.

The Boston Review posted Bloom’s article and then responses to it from other prominent academics, including Simon Baron-Cohen.  You can read Baron-Cohen’s reply here,  Followed by Paul Bloom’s final word on his comments here.

Interestingly enough, though both Paul Bloom and Simon Baron-Cohen have Jewish heritage and their families lived through one of history’s most devastating leadership failures, the Holocaust. Yet still, they hold very different views on empathy’s role in it.

I expect the same kind of diverse views would arise if you asked; “What is empathy’s proper place in the classroom?”  I don’t know anyone who would argue that it has no place, but perhaps it is more about how is it properly expressed?

For me, empathy truly is the root of good leadership, (whether that be leadership of a class, a faculty or a country) but to be durable, that empathic skill must be developed and mature.  The roots can’t just spread out on the surface, they must grow deep at a similar rate to support the branches of responsibility above it.

The shallowest form of empathy is the purely emotive or feelings based version.  With a bit of imagination, even new teachers can render the feeling of being bullied, or academically struggling. Deeper empathic skill adds reason to feelings, forming a much more robust grounding structure.  Development of this kind of deeper understanding of not just the emotions but the facts of why followers think and feel the way they do, follows human psychological development generally. 

The world starts out to most of us as a confusing place, full of good and bad emotions that can lead us to do lots of good and bad things.  As people develop reasoning skills and life experience, things become more stable.  In this way, I think both Paul Bloom and Simon-Baron Cohen have a point.  I do think that from Paul Bloom’s particular academic viewpoint, dispensing with empathy might, seem logical, even easy.  If you stand up in front of a class every day, I think its much more difficult.

What is certain, if you are going to enter any career that involves motivating followers (the bulk of a Teacher’s job) then a well thought out attitude to empathy and the people you are motivating is essential. Would you agree?

Mike Martin is the Executive Director of the Halogen Foundation. Facinated by leaders for as long as he can remember, Mike's main interest lies in the many ways in which individuals use influence to shape the lives around them. 

Tweet @MikeAMartin or @halogenaus


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