The Empathetic LeaderAnybody who has been through training aimed at strengthening interpersonal skills has been taught to make a conscious effort to understand how others perceive a situation that can be viewed from alternate perspectives. Taking the views of others into account helps in refining plans and in winning energetic support from those who will be implementing the plans.
Now the December 2006 issue of Psychological Science brings news of research investigating "the effect of power on 'perspective taking,' adjusting to another's perspective, and interpreting the emotions of others." The researchers conclude from four experiments and a correlational study that "the more power leaders have, the harder it is for them to grasp just what the world looks like to the people under them." It seems that "power itself serves as an impediment to understanding the perspectives of others."
I haven't yet read the original article, so I can't comment on details of the research. For the moment, I would just observe that this finding is the latest evidence I've come upon of how important it is for businesses to groom leaders. It is unwise simply to appoint promising individuals to powerful positions and then figure that these annointed leaders must be left free to exercise their own best judgment concerning how to run the show.
A combination of leadership development activities prior to assuming a senior executive position, and executive coaching, if needed, after becoming a senior executive, is the approach a smart manager will take to developing the good judgment that is an essential complement to an ability to make decisions and prod others to act. This is why, at the beginning of Streamline's Leadership workshop, I sum up an effective leader as someone who exercises judgment and takes action. It is essential to be able to bring these two qualities to bear in tandem.
The central benefits of improving one's leadership skills, such as empathetically weighing the perspectives of others, are that decisions will be more robust -- they'll more often play out as intended -- and employees will be more engaged and productive.
When you see someone like Bob Nardelli, late of Home Depot, replaced, in part, because of his "notoriously imperious manner," the disadvantages of indulging executive heedlessness of others are quite clear. Conversely, I suspect that if anyone can handle a tough situation like saving Ford Motor Company, it will be a CEO like Alan Mulally, who has "a knack for showing empathy even as he shows workers the door." Again, the key is combining decisiveness with consideration of the perspectives of those who are affected by your decisions.