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Being human again: Finding our way back to empathy & compassion

How did we end up so far down a path of our own making that we’re now ‘teaching’ authentic leadership? Teaching people how to be themselves, or how to be more human when leading others. Seriously?!

leadership development

Teaching authentic leadership has apparently become a necessity after years of corporate brainwashing convincing us that: profit always rules over purpose; you must never show your emotions; no one can be trusted to have your personal interests at heart; people must be controlled and managed; and work is meant to be arduous, as well as a very serious matter, with no room for play or joy.

The dissonance between being human, and belonging to a corporate machine, started as a little crack on the surface of the pristine, commercial veneer of big business, but has now begun to widen for all to see, opening up like an enormous chasm with millions of voices inside pleading for a human experience; searching for a way to feel the belonging, joy, fulfilment, excitement, curiosity, emotional care and love that our human essence craves.

Professional, appropriate, serious, focused, dedicated, and generally very ‘grey’ in both colour and feeling- these are the attributes that have dominated our working lives, resulting in a mass of anxious, frustrated, and lost commuters, who indulge in daydreams of mishaps befalling their ungrateful bosses, or a life of freedom to be whatever one’s heart desires whilst somehow covering the mortgage!

But the grey does appear to be receding, as the belief in work-life balance, and employee wellbeing becomes an ever more central component of the modern-day worker’s principles. It is interesting to note the choice of words in the ‘work-life balance’ concept- is it really either work or life? What is it that we’re actually trying to balance here? Work is work and it is necessary in order to live, we are told, and the best we can hope for is more working from home to help us feel that we are living our lives whilst we labour. But if each individual were able to contribute in complete congruence with their personal gift, work would simply be life, or living, and we would no longer require this separation. If you enjoy all of what you do, then you never have to ‘work’ a day in your life, so they say.

We are witnessing the dawn of a new era of enterprise, with the grey of the ‘old ways’ beginning to fade, making way for a colourful outpouring of human emotion. Even the most hardened of corporate leaders, straight from the age of power dressing, and cigars in the all-male boardroom, are waking up to the inevitable changes encircling them. To be judged as a successful leader today, you need to show compassion and empathy for your followers, as well as hitting the numbers, and if you achieve performance outcomes through anything less than positive encouragement and support for your people, you could be heading for real trouble.

Leaders need to respect their teams now, not the other way around- the shoe has firmly shifted to the other foot!

This leaves those who struggle with emotional intelligence, no matter how high their intellect, likely to find themselves hitting a hard stop in their career path at some point. This plea for compassion, emotional connection and empathy, is now flooding the halls of the office like a tidal wave of feeling, finally breaking through an old dam, with leaders either happily riding the wave if they’ve been hoping for its arrival, or else, becoming submerged by it as they grapple for a life float in the shape of cold, hard reason.

Empathy has perhaps become the most dominant force driving this wave of feeling forward. Formally described as the visceral, or emotional experience of another person’s feelings, empathy plays a vital role in ensuring our survival. The maternal instinct to care for one’s offspring, in both humans and animals, somewhat relies on the ability to perceive emotional needs in others, and studies have shown empathetic behaviours in human infants, chimpanzees and even rats. In The Descent of Man and Selection In Relation to Sex, Darwin comments that “communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.” In a work setting, one’s ability to demonstrate empathy has become a vital part of managing others, getting the best from your team, giving people the right type of support, and building trusted relationships. If you feel that your boss listens, cares and helps you, then you’re likely to be more open to listening to them. And if through their empathy with you, they’ve shared some of their personal fears or needs, this creates an element of vulnerability on their part: vulnerability encourages trust, and trust lays the foundations for positive collaboration. Empathy requires a level of introspection, in that we must delve into parts of ourselves that we may not be familiar with, or that have long been healed, in order to stand in the shoes of others and ‘feel for them’. For some, a lack of empathy is simply a conscious or subconscious fear of unsettling emotions that we’d rather not meet with again.

To be truly empathetic is to wholly adopt the outlook of another, since we rarely see things as they are: we see things as we are.

Setting aside our judgements, or biases, is a tricky business, and comes from a place of self-knowledge in order that we can prevent perceptions of others being clouded by our personal narrative. When we are defending our own mishaps, mistakes or shortcomings, we rarely lack explanations or excuses in our instinctive desire for self-preservation. When met with the troubles of others, however, we tend to apply a much harsher verdict if we can’t immediately relate the circumstances back to personal experiences. Therefore, the more we can draw on our self-awareness when understanding others, the more enhanced our insights into them will become.

Empathy should not, consequently, be mistaken as being opposed to self-interest. On the contrary, we can usually be more successful in our pursuits when we can empathise with our audience or stakeholders, and ultimately, being kind to others creates prosperity for all.


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