A recent blog post by Seth Godin set me thinking: Seth writes about empathy and cautions that empathy can be taken too far (essentially into false responsibility). He's right, and it is a danger in leadership; leaders have to know when to be true to their standards, and to the boundaries of personal responsibility when dealing with a team-member or a customer.
But that wasn't what piqued my interest. Seth's opening statement was: "It's essential to find empathy for the people you hope to serve, to teach, to work with. Without it, you can't find the place they're stuck, you can't help them move in the direction they seek to go."
So where do you begin? So many leaders are "Type A" personalities with clear vision, high motivation, ambitious plans, and drive to succeed. Empathy doesn't grow well in that garden. Or does it?
Understanding is crucial to the Type A leader: risk assessment, return on investment, opportunity cost, SWOT analysis, differentiation from the competition; all these leadership tools and strategies are forms of understanding.
What if the leader applied the same approach to their team? Understanding strengths and weaknesses by utilizing clear-eyed, objective measures that neither discriminate against nor flatter those who may have differing personalities? Applying that understanding to the challenges of team-building and organizational success?
It is a successful leader who either knows how to define and engage the team's strengths, or who empowers someone else to help them do so.
Empathy for those we serve (including those who work alongside us) is crucial.
Yes, there need to be limits on empathy, but woe betide the leader who fails to cultivate it, or neglects to leverage it for the good of the team.