Academic journal article Military Review

Empathy: A True Leader Skill

Academic journal article Military Review

Empathy: A True Leader Skill

Article excerpt


To lead successfully, a person must demonstrate two active, essential, interrelated traits: expertise and empathy. In my experience, both of these traits can be deliberately and systematically cultivated; this personal development is the first important building block of leadership.

--William G. Pagonis, Leadership in a Combat Zone

IN HIS CLASSIC 1991 Harvard Business Review article, "Leadership in a Combat Zone," Lieutenant General Gus Pagonis outlines a path to effective leadership by focusing on the development of two fundamental leadership traits: expertise and empathy. There is little disagreement among military professionals that leaders must be proficient at systems management. But what about empathy? How did empathy, a word that conjures preconceptions of excessive sensitivity and interpersonal emotional connectivity, become a building block of leadership? The term seemingly would better apply to the realm of doctors and counselors than to those charged with fighting wars. As a professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, I found it intriguing that FM 6-22, Army Leadership, elevated empathy to an essential attribute for Army leadership. I began wondering if our middle-level Army leaders really understood its definition and applicability to a leadership climate. Attempting to satisfy my curiosity, I deliberately injected the concept of empathy into several classroom discussions. While most students understood the obvious definition of "placing yourself in someone else's position," few could elaborate on its specific application in operations and professional development. I looked at the doctrine, and found little on the application of empathy:

   Army Leaders show a propensity to share experiences with the
   members of their organizations. When planning and deciding, try to
   envision the impact on Soldiers and other subordinates. The ability
   to see something from another person's point of view, to identify
   with and enter into another person's feelings and emotions, enables
   the Army leader to better care. (1)

Why is it so important to see things from the Soldier's point of view, to "identify with and enter into another person's feelings and emotions?" The U.S. involvement in extended operations and its focus on counterinsurgency, has brought a renewed awareness of war's human dimension. Humans desire supportive relationships, and empathy is the foundation that builds trusting relationships. The leader who harnesses the power of real empathy fosters better communication, tighter cohesion, stronger discipline, and greater morale throughout his or her organization.

In this article I discuss empathy, its elements, and its role in fostering trust by building relationships within the organization. A close examination of personal and professional development will demonstrate how essential empathy is for creating trusting relationships among subordinates and leaders. Finally, I will discuss empathic awareness and how to overcome the "empathy deficit.'' Many leaders are not empathetic by nature, and for them it must become an acquired skill. With a few simple techniques and the will to develop this foundational attribute, leaders will discover improved relations in both their professional and personal lives.

Empathy in Leadership

Empathy is an abstract tool that leads to tangible results. (2) In 2005, the Melbourne Business School's Mount Eliza Center for Executive Education initiated the Leadership Index Project, for which they interviewed over 627 business and organizational leaders. The survey captured the specific issues and concerns of managers in Australian organizations. It also demonstrated how the challenges faced by these managers are similar to or different from those of their counterparts, both regionally and globally. The survey found that, out of 20 leadership qualities, empathy and caring toward employees ranked 4th. …

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