Leaders to Leader

Lessons from the Great American Leaders & How They Apply Now

Does Empathy Undermine Your Leadership Abilities?

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Leaders do have control over the actions, behaviors and decisions that influence and shape their personal credibility. This once again involves self-awareness as well as comprehensive critical thinking abilities to examine the consequences of both their long and short-term actions. All leaders have choices, but the right choices demand a leader’s willingness and acquiescence.

“Bill [William Hewett] and Dave [David Packard] could be gruff and demanding but were seen as compassionate at heart. They agonized over layoffs and, according to company lore, would apologize for angry outbursts. They created one of the most humane workplaces in the United States. The founders also served as models of integrity. HP products were expensive but they were dependable. Wall Street could trust the numbers that Hewlett and Packard presented to analysts.”[1]

My research substantiates that the great leaders were compassionate and displayed empathy. There is a story about George Westinghouse (Westinghouse Electric) conducting a tour of his factories with visitors. In the course of the tour, the group observed a young man stumbling and falling while carrying a large copper plate. As the group laughed at the young man’s predicament, Westinghouse walked over and in his business suit, kneeled down and assisted the young man.

Herb Kelleher (Southwest Airlines) has fostered compassion and empathy within his company. He took a personal interest in even the smallest events of his employees’ lives. Using their own initiative, his employees have in turn, routinely used voluntary payroll deductions to assist fellow employees with serious financial problems such as terminal illnesses.

In the quest for ever-increasing shareholder value, many contemporary leaders perceive empathy and compassion as a sign of personal weakness. Quite to the contrary, my research proves that the great leaders, especially those who were compassionate, were also strong leaders. There was nothing weak about them and their compassion and humanity didn’t diminish their performance. Most times it enhanced it.

An additional benefit the research revealed was that strong levels of compassion and empathy result in strong levels of trust and loyalty. Rather than diminishing shareholder value, the great leaders typically outperformed their competition. Howard Schultz (Starbucks) “explains how [employee] meetings help him lead a fast-growing $ 6.4 billion global company with 90,000 employees, 9,700 stores, and 33 million weekly customers. ‘People aren’t interested in how much you know… It’s how much you care.’”[2]

Jack Welch (General Electric) noted the value of a compassionate leader, when he said, “If you have everything else you need in terms of talent and skill, your humanity will come to be your most appealing virtue to an organization. Your team and your bosses will know who you are in your soul, what kind of people you attract, and what kind of performance you want from everyone. Your realness will make you accessible; you will connect and you will inspire. You will lead.”[3]

[1] Johnson Craig, The Rise and Fall of Carly Fiorina: An Ethical Case Study (Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, November 2008)

[2] Meyers, William, Conscious in a Cup, (U.S. News & World Report) October 31, 2005

[3] Welch Jack, Get Real, Get Ahead (Business Week) July 23, 2007

Excerpt: Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It (Majorium Business Press, 2011)

If you would like to learn more about the humanity, empathy, humility and compassion of the great American leaders, through their own inspiring words and stories, refer to Great! What Makes Leaders Great: What They Did, How They Did It and What You Can Learn From It. It illustrates how great leaders built great companies, and how you can apply the strategies, concepts and techniques that they pioneered to improve your own leadership skills. Click here to learn more.

Copyright © 2011 Timothy F. Bednarz All Rights Reserved

Written by Timothy F. Bednarz, Ph.D.

May 31, 2011 at 10:20 am

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