Want to solve diversity? Build empathy in your leaders.

First: On Leadership

With literally hundreds of definitions of what Leadership is, how it should be defined, and endless books about the topic, one thing is for sure: leadership today is not what it used to be. The sooner we accept this, the sooner we can start shifting people, businesses and new ideas forward so that we can solve some very serious global issues.

As far as the definition, there is really one that resonates with me, and it starts with what leadership is not anymore:

It has nothing to do with the “glory” of your position and whether you are a “Director”, “Head of” or “Cleaner”. It’s not about what car your drive, how big and beautiful your house is (or how many you own), how much your clothes cost, or about following a particular leadership model. Leadership is about you. Let me revise that: it’s about being you. Now how you want to be, is your choice. According to Wallace Bachman who was hired to analyze leadership characteristics for the purpose of identifying superior performers from average performers in the US Navy, the following traits were identified in top leaders:

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  • Positive
  • More emotionally expressive
  • Dramatic
  • Warm
  • More sociable
  • More appreciative
  • Trustful

Looking at the above list, it doesn't take a genius to know that these all fall under the umbrella of Emotional Intelligence skills.

Many people understand the importance of emotional intelligence in the workplace and in Leadership. I can advocate for the benefits of emotional intelligence at both a personal and professional level, because as I’ll write in a future post, emotional intelligence skills might have even saved my life.

Back to Solving Diversity

A quick definition: The state or fact of being diverse; having difference;

It’s amazing we even have to define a word that tells us we are different, but more often than not, it’s not what we see we know for sure, it’s what we don’t see and inside all of us, we are fundamentally all the same. The mechanics of what makes us move, talk, sing, dance is exactly the same. So why are we so caught-up in the outer?

I find it strange that most of us in our childhood, don’t differentiate and judge people as harshly as we do when we are adults. That tends to make me believe that something in our environmental conditions affected us along the way to growing older. It’s not difficult to guess where it comes from. Most of it is from media, schools, parents, and whatever other visual stimulation we are exposed to. Some of us continue to look at people as a more wholesome energy, as part of ourselves and therefore remain judgement-free. However, I have relatives who face extreme difficulties and stress living in this world because they accept themselves to be different. I see the discrimination of such groups, whether religious, or cultural, or other and always ask myself, why?

In the end, why can’t we be simply caring of one another? In asking searching questions and diving deeper, I found out why some people are more accepting of diversity than others:

The empathy factor. Not sympathy. Empathy. They are very different.

Empathy vs Sympathy

Empathy: Is the fuel for connection
Sympathy: Drives disconnection

Empathy is FEELING with people. When someone tells you they are having difficulty with their marriage, a person with sympathy might say, “at least you have a marriage”. A person with empathy has the ability to connect with something in themselves, that knows that feeling.

Sympathetic responses doesn’t really make the situation better. What does make it better is that the empathetic person can respond by saying something like, “I’m so happy you shared that with me” and offer a hug. That’s a connection.

When someone slips down an "up" escalator and rolls down each step seemingly endlessly bumping their head on each one, a sympathetic reaction would be, "gee, I hope he’s going to be OK", and stand and watch. An empathetic reaction would be to run to the escalator, push the emergency stop button, stop the person from slipping further, and call for help. That's what we need more of.

Empathy Deficit is alive

Before he was president, in a 2004 interview with Charlie Rose, Barrack Obama spoke about empathy deficit and the difficulties of trying to understand someone who thinks differently, and has different values than you. He spoke about making the effort (or putting in the work) to put yourself in their shoes and see things through their eyes. In other words, be more empathetic to the feelings of others. If we can, we look beyond the outer and value others as we would ourselves (and here within, lies the basis of self love). He spoke about how this work will benefit our societies to solve complex real-world problems such as poverty, environmental, and I will add, diversity. Yes, there is a genuine link between empathy and diversity.

On becoming more empathetic

Empathy, is an emotional intelligence skill and as a result, is trainable. One of those methods are via mindfulness. When we develop empathy, we see that every life is an extension of our own. To develop empathy, many practice a Buddhist tradition known as loving-kindness. This starts with practicing loving-kindness towards ourselves, and then extending to others we know, followed by others we don’t know.

I will share the practice in more detail in a future post but in conclusion, I will say that organizations need empathetic leaders at many different levels for diversity to truly dissolve. This means letting go of the traditional norms to solve many of the organizational challenges keeping CEOs awake at night, such as uncertainty, globalization, and in particular, diversity. As Mahatma Gandhi once said:

"Be the change you wish to see in the world".

Certainly, having more empathy can make the difference.

Thank you for reading!

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Gabriele Ciminelli

Gabriele Ciminelli