In my work as a coach, empathy--defined by Merriam-Webster as "understanding and vicariously experiencing the feelings and thoughts of another"--is a foundational skill, and my effectiveness is inextricably tied to my capacity to empathize (which is why I seek to understand and transcend my limitations.)
So it's gratifying when someone other than a coach talks about the importance of empathy, particularly in a business context. Last week I recommended Grant McCracken's Chief Culture Officer, and in addition to supporting his advocacy for that new profession, I want to call attention to his case for empathy as an essential capability in business:
[pp 128-129] In the twentieth century, the corporation was so large it created its own weather system. General Motors, IBM and Coca-Cola could shape the world to their will. And in this world it was enough to be really analytically smart. Now we have to know the world outside the corporation. We have to know worlds alien to our own. We have to know worlds that proceed according to other assumptions. Without empathy, these worlds are opaque to us.
The news has reached even the Harvard Business School. When faculty members Srikant Datar and David Garvin consulted the b-school world, they were told that MBAs needed more "self-awareness and the capacity for introspection and empathy." This is good news, but I am a little puzzled why they continue to call these "soft skills." In fact, empathy is frequently the blade that finds the right insight, extracts from it the real strategic and tactical opportunity, and crafts it into a final, compelling form. Is this really a "soft" skill? (And what does it say about the b-school community that it uses this patronizing language?)...
The CEO of Delta Air Lines, Richard Anderson was recently asked how business school should change... As he told the New York Times, "We measure, study, quantify, analyze every single piece of our business. Business schools in the United States have done a phenomenal job of creating the capability. But then you've got to be able to take all that data and information and transform it into change in the organization and improvement in the organization and the formulation of the business strategy."
We may think of empathy as the ability to see the bigger picture that will transform the corporation inside and out.
In my role as a Leadership Coach at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, I'm directly involved in the effort to help MBAs develop more "self-awareness and the capacity for introspection and empathy," and something the GSB gets right--partly by design, partly by accident--is the rich array of opportunities for our students to cultivate these qualities.
The designed aspect is a function not only of the GSB's "new curriculum" and its emphasis on leadership and communication skills, but also of the school's decades-long commitment to its Interpersonal Dynamics course, a transformative experience for the majority of the student body (including me, way back in 1999.) That said, the accidental aspect derives from my sense that, despite all the progress that's been made, some of our most important work in these areas still happens on the margins of the institution, in happenstance conversations and relationships, and, to Grant's point above, all of this work is still easily dismissed by some as mere "soft skills."
I'm reminded of a November 2007 post by Tom Peters (which he actually wrote in ALL CAPS to signify his passion):
BOB WATERMAN AND I, IN 1980, DEVELOPED A MANTRA IN THOSE DAYS OF YORE WHEN "STRATEGY [STRATEGIC PLANS] WAS EVERYTHING." WE SAID:
HARD IS SOFT.
SOFT IS HARD.
THE READILY-MANIPULABLE NUMBERS ARE THE TRUE "SOFT STUFF."
THE RELATIONSHIPS-LEADERSHIP-"CULTURE"-"ACTION BIAS" [OR NOT] ARE THE TRUE "HARD STUFF."
I'd readily add "self-awareness and the capacity for introspection and empathy" to that last list--none of them are easy to develop. I'm also reminded of Charlie Rose's 2007 interview with Bill George:
Charlie Rose: [Leadership] can be taught and learned?
Bill George: Learned. I teach now, and I don't think you can teach leadership, I think you can learn about it. I think you can learn about yourself. It comes from within, from who are you inside and what makes you tick, and what are those tapes playing in your head about what you want to be and what your limitations are.
(later in the interview)
Bill George: In this century, leadership has changed. Leadership is not about getting people to follow you, the "Great Man theory," follow you over the hill General George Patton style. That idea is out. To me, the great leaders today are able to align people around a sense of purpose and values and get that consistency all around the globe, and then empower other people to step up and lead. And I've found that in organizations that are really effective at generating leaders, there are thousands of leaders because people empower them to step up and lead.
And just how do we develop leaders who can "go within," who can "align people around a sense of purpose," who can "empower other[s]"? By helping them to cultivate their self-awareness, their capacity for introspection, their ability to empathize.