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Why Empathy Isn’t Enough

April 7, 2010 12 comments

Leaders CompassionI’m not a big fan of the word empathy. Shocking, I know. Now before all the passionate defenders of empathy denounce me as a heartless cynic, I only ask that they take a few moments to put themselves in my shoes.

The word empathy is barely 100 years old. It was fashioned after a made-up German word, Einfühlung, which literally means “in feeling.” Empathy is defined as intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. The most obvious example of empathy occurs when I’m watching sports. When I see a guy get hit where it counts, I – along with every other man in the room – will cringe, double over and cry out in real pain. That’s empathy.

Empathy itself is quite useful as far as it goes. The problem is, it doesn’t go far enough. For example, I might cringe at the athlete’s unfortunate mishap – But what if I think he’s a jerk? Then even as I’m feeling his pain, there might be a part of me that thinks he got what he deserved. I’m being empathetic. I’m feeling his pain. The only problem is, I’m enjoying it.

As leaders we must go beyond mere empathy. It’s not enough to put yourself in someone else’s shoes – you have to feel their pain then seek to alleviate it. This is compassion.

Compassion is a great word; it’s been in our language for around 700 years and literally means to “suffer together.” It’s defined as a deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it. If you think leading is just about feeling what others are feeling, you’re not going far enough; you’re settling. Leadership is about suffering together; it’s about caring deeply about your people and finding the solution that benefits both them and the organization.

So set your sights beyond just developing empathy – become a compassionate leader. That’s when you’ll see your influence and impact really take off!

Do you “suffer together” with your followers? How does that inform your leadership?