Leadership in politics, business and religion: the missing ingredient



Recently a friend, having listened to me sounding off about behaviour in high places, stunned me into silence with an excellent question:

“So, what one thing is missing?

I huffed and puffed a bit, but quickly surrendered. I didn’t have an answer. I went away and reflected. I think I’ve figured it out.

Recent events in politics, business and religion, share a straightforward theme: leaders at the top are letting us down.

But what one ingredient would they all possess to ensure they didn’t? That was my friend’s challenge.

The answer is appropriate levels of empathy. It doesn’t roll off the tongue. I know, but here’s the rationale:

Empathy is the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.

It’s different from but related to compassion – a strong feeling of sympathy and sadness for the suffering or bad luck of others and a wish to help them and from but related to kindness – the quality of being kind.

Empathy involves an initial internal action – imagining. Kindness and compassion emanate from existing feelings, not that either can’t be learned.

Imagining what it would be like to be in another’s situation requires an ability first to be kind to oneself.

Might the narcissistic politician so lack personal boundaries that their interior lives are a living nightmare masked by a “resting bitch face”?

Might the bullying business leader live in mortal dread of being found out for the imposter syndrome they inevitably suffer but figured thuggery was the only way to survive?

Might it be the case that some religious leaders in their formative years and training were required to be so very hard on themselves, they hardened their hearts horribly to others?

Not that all three, on a good day, have no empathy at all, it’s just that it’s not enough for the needs of the moment.

Very few politicians and none with power are displaying enough empathy for both sides of the Northern Ireland backstop issue. They don’t have to agree. Just demonstrate that they understand, enough.

Not one of the CEOs in all the recent corporate scandals were able to imagine, enough, what impact their actions would have on others or else they would not have taken them. Jamie Dimon could not bring himself to empathise, enough, with his lowest paid employee when cross-examined by Katie Porter.

The various church leaders responsible for child sex abuse, and other violations yet to be adequately addressed couldn’t imagine, enough, the pain they had failed to prevent. Had they done so, they would not have put the reputation of their churches above the suffering of their victims.

These are “front page” examples. However, I bet they’re not that far off what you are experiencing at work, in your boardrooms and teams.

So what do you do?

If you have power, use it to encourage small changes in behaviour to improve EQ at work.

EQ at work is a function of self-awareness, the ability to get one’s needs met productively and empathy.

But what is the incentive to do this?

It’s clear that society is struggling with the current model. It’s not melodramatic to predict severe national crises, more corporate collapses and the disastrous abandonment of churches and some charitable organisations by their more moderate membership. If that’s not incentive enough, I don’t know what is.

There are rays of hope:

Rory Stewart, when asked by Nick Watt from the BBC if he agreed that his performance on TV was “lacklustre.” He agreed. A sign of someone comfortable being honest about himself without fragmenting.

Business leaders are at least engaging with ESG, even if they haven’t yet made peace with the fact that it means, usually if not always, lower profits.

The priest, leading the Lyra Mckee requiem service galvanised politicians with his empathetic homily.

But these are oases in a desert of vitriol. What small changes can you make, today?

Ciarán Fenton