Empathy enhances leadership

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the ways other people are feeling emotionally.  As I wrote in another recent article, empathy is a basic requirement of caring for others and acting towards them appropriately and compassionately.

Many people confuse empathy with sympathy.  In a TED Talk recorded in 2010 that has had more than 62 million views, Dr Brené Brown explained the difference very clearly:

Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman have recognised that there are three types of empathy: cognitive, emotional and compassionate.  They describe the differences in this way:

Most empathetic people are quite good at the first two types of empathy, which involve understanding the other person’s feelings (type 1) and metaphorically putting themselves in their shoes (type 2).  The third type of empathy, which involves demonstrating care through action, is less common.  Many people can put themselves in the shoes of another person (type 2) without actually caring (type 3), but in reality, this may mean little more than the efforts of an effective advertiser or salesperson who is seeking to manipulate people.

On the other hand, people who can show type 3 empathy, which is authentic care and concern for others, behave very differently from those who limit themselves to types 1 and 2.

In general, leaders in schools (including board members) who are loved and respected are those who demonstrate empathetic concern towards others (type 3).  Their care for others inspires members of the school community who reciprocate by responding with loyalty towards them.  Daniel Goleman has reported that when teachers and students in schools are asked to identify which leaders they love and which they hate, one of the biggest differentiators is the extent to which leaders demonstrate type 3 empathy.

From time to time back in the days when I served as a school principal, I would try to set aside time at least once every year to become a student for the day, usually in either Year 9 or Year 10.  In other words, I would follow a student’s timetable and participate in everything that a student would do on that day.  I found this exercise to be extremely helpful in keeping me grounded and understanding the everyday experiences of my students, therefore serving as a foundation for genuine empathy.

In March 1999, while Stephen Codrington was Chief Executive (i.e. Head of the School) at Kristin School in Auckland, New Zealand, he decided to “be” a student for a day, following the routine of a typical Year 10 student for the day to understand and appreciate their experience.

I would try to sit towards the back of the classroom because I knew that was where trouble-makers liked to sit. In a highly varied day I might study the profile of a sand dune, answer some questions that were being asked (I think) in French, construct a mind-map, learn the difference between mensuration and menstruation, help to grow some plant seedlings, analyse Freud’s theory of human nature, tuck in my shirt intuitively when I heard there was to be a uniform inspection, and successfully solve some maths problems that I seem to recall involved wildlife parks and chicken wings.

I remember the huge range of emotions I experienced one day while I was a Year 9 student for the day.  There were times when I felt anxious, such as when called upon to give an answer to the class.  There was the sense of achievement in finishing a particularly challenging Maths problem – with the help of some of my new Year 9 friends.  There was the chill I felt when I thought I was about to be blamed for another student’s talking.  There was the admiration and humility I felt when listening to an excellent group presentation by other students.  There was the embarrassment when I was asked if I had completed my homework and I had to respond honestly ‘not for more than 30 years’.  And there was the simple hunger – waiting for the bell – as lunch time approached, followed by the genuine joy of joining the queue at the canteen to buy a chicken burger, capped off by joining a game of handball and demonstrating to the students how a self-proclaimed ‘expert’ plays the game.

I concluded that Year 9 students at my school worked hard, but not as hard as their Principal.  I also found that Year 9 students at my school had lots of fun, and maybe even more fun than their Principal (at least when the deadline for writing my board report was imminent).

It is easy to see how empathetic leadership is important for school leaders – the Principal, senior and middle managers, and every classroom teacher – because schools are complex communities of people with different needs, vulnerabilities, challenges and aspirations – all of which require understanding and empathy.

I think the same principle applies at least as strongly for members of the school board, even though their work is more remote from the everyday life of the school.  Achieving empathy may be more challenging for board members than other school leaders because not all board members necessarily share the lived experience of the people they are serving.  For example, we can assume that every board member attended school at some time in the past, but that may have been many decades ago when the educational world was very different from today.  In any case, most school board members will have never worked in a school or any kind of educational environment, and more-than-likely not even in a not-for-profit organisation with all the unique cultural quirks that this entails.  Not having any shared lived experience with staff and students in a school places a distance between school board members and their community, building a barrier to empathy.

The consequence is that many school board members are somewhat detached from type 3 empathy (their ability to care) because they lack accessibility to the people and environment they are governing.  This is not an argument for student or staff representation at board meetings, but a plea for school board members to visit the school from time to time when it is fully operational, meet and chat informally with staff and students, and hopefully even visit the communities that send students to the school in the case of boarding schools.

Simple strategies such as these are important and effective ways to help board members understand how and why their work is important in transforming students’ and staff lives (type 1 empathy) which can - and should – progress to the critically important type 3 empathy.  Board members must be in touch with their purpose in a meaningful way if they are to be effective and add value to the school they are serving.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

If you are interested in one of my experiences being a student for a day while I was Head of Kristin School in New Zealand in 1999, you can read my reflections HERE. 

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