It’s guest post Monday! Today’s post is a guest post by Dan Erickson. Dan teaches communication courses at a college in the Pacific Northwest. He was the child victim of a cult and has developed a unique view of life and leadership. Dan has written two books, A Train Called Forgiveness, and At the Crossing of Justice and Mercy. You can learn more about Dan Erickson’s work at http://www.danerickson.net.
As a child, working for the leaders of an extreme religious cult, I learned a few things about leadership: mostly what not to do.
We’ve all worked for one. You know, one of those people who has absolutely no understanding of the way you feel. In fact, they don’t really care at all. They’re simply task managers, cracking the whip to make you perform. That’s what it was like for me as a kid.
As an adult I’ve worked for some good and some bad bosses. I studied some of the great modern entrepreneurs in college. I wrote my Master’s thesis on Woody Guthrie. Yes, he was a leader, and a pretty good one. He helped to lead an entire social movement. One trait I’ve noticed that great leaders have is empathy. Let’s define that word:
“Empathy: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another.”
“Empathy: the ability to imagine oneself in another’s place and understand the other’s feelings, desires, ideas, and actions.”
Great leaders have empathy for their followers. They allow themselves to internally experience what their followers are experiencing. To become a empathetic leader I suggest:
1. Be understanding. As leaders it is our job to be understanding of our followers. We are all human. We all have good days and bad days. When one of your followers is not performing as they usually do, ask them what’s going on. Listen closely to their response. Try to put yourself in their shoes.
2. Be aware. Great leaders know their followers. Why? Because they interact with them. A truly great leader may not even consider his or her employees followers, but rather part of a team of equals. As a leader, make sure to interact with your team. Get to know each member. Watch how your team members interact with one another. Be alert to personality conflicts and other potential problems. And when a problem arises… see point #3.
3. Be sensitive. Don’t just attack problems with a fix-it-quick mentality. People, and relationships between people, are complex. You need to study the issue. When you talk to those who are performing poorly or having a dispute, you need to have a thorough understanding of the underlying causes before making suggestions for change. When I was a kid in the cult, I was never asked why I was working slowly at times. I was just told to get moving. If they would have asked, they’d have known I had severe headaches, as I got migraines as a kid. But the leaders were not sensitive.
4. Be vicarious. Put yourself in the other’s shoes. Ask yourself how they feel during a given situation. How would you feel? Allow others to express their feelings, their thoughts, their ideas and desires. Listen! After you have listened, imagine yourself in their position before reacting.
Finally, I’d like to point out that being empathic does not mean being a wimp or a pushover. You still need to be firm and hold your ground as a leader when a situation calls for it. If a team member is repeating inappropriate behavior, you may need to take further action. Be empathic first, but don’t be afraid to set limits. And even if the worse happens and you must cut someone from the team, do it with understanding and sensitivity. Be an empathic leader. When you use empathy as one of your leadership traits, you’ll find that people will respond to you. Your organization will run more smoothly. It’s a win-win situation for all involved.
Questions: Can you describe a situation when you wished someone would have had more empathy with you as a follower? Can you describe a time when you successfully used empathy as a leader?