Empathy & Ethics: The Defining Characteristic of Great Leaders
Maharana Pratap – A brave warrior, caring king and valiant leader
Many leaders are competent, but few qualify as remarkable. If you want to join the ranks of the best of the best, make sure you also embody the qualities of empathy and ethics all the time. It isn’t easy, but the rewards can be truly phenomenal.
Maharana Pratap was not just a brave warrior, caring king and valiant leader but also a man of principles. He never tried any unjust means nor transgressed from the rules of warfare to win over his enemies. Raja Man Singh of Jaipur was the Mughal army general in Akbar’s times. Once, Maharana got to know Raja Man Singh’s whereabouts in a jungle. He could have easily attacked Raja Man Singh when the latter was busy hunting, but he did not backstab the latter. His distinction of being just was a rare leadership trait.
Ethical leadership is based on trust and respect. For the framework to work, ethical leaders must align their own ethical standards with those of the organization and ensure there is an environment of openness. Ethics isn’t a stagnant concept, but it requires constant challenging and re-evaluation in order to provide the benefits.
Ethical behaviour is a tricky subject and the difficulties in defining ethics date back to the beginning of humanity. In its simplest definition, ethics relate to knowing and doing what is ‘right. According to the Oxford Dictionary, ethics is “moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity”.
It is thus related to concepts such as trust, honesty, consideration, charisma and fairness. Ethics is concerned with the kinds of values and morals an individual or a society finds desirable or appropriate. Furthermore, ethics is concerned with the virtuousness of individuals and their motives.
On an another occasion, when Rahim Khan-e-Khana, a Mughal army officer, was campaigning against Mewar, Maharana Pratap’s son Amar Singh caught hold of Rahim’s women and brought them to the capital. When Maharana came to know about the captivity of the women, he detested such a mean act by his son and commanded him to set them free. Maharana’s generosity touched Rahim and prevented him from campaigning against him.
Great leaders are also great listeners. They listen with empathy, sincerely attempting to put themselves in the other person’s shoes. The importance of being a self-aware leader is perhaps best captured via the Latin proverb: “You can’t lead others if you don’t know yourself.”
The highly sensitive ones are built with a natural and deep empathy towards others making themselves powerful leaders, teachers, coaches, guides and mentors. The emotionally sensitive are completely “tuned in” to the feeling experiences of others, enabling them to stop another person’s negative state from spinning out of control.
The great leaders, because of their empathy, tend to react to the emotions in others, giving them the insight to calm and provide practical solutions that ease tensions. When the emotions in others are positive, the highly sensitive are skilled in building upon those emotions to more deeply inspire and motivate their team to the cause.
Since sensitive people can easily empathize and step into the emotional shoes of others, whenever they have to deliver news or information, they try to imagine how they’d feel if they were on the receiving end of it, particularly if it’s bad news.
Very often we think of greetings like “good morning” and “how are you doing” as mere formalities, but sensitive people ask because they really want to know. When a teacher wishes her students “good morning,” she wants to remind them that the day is full of potential for new experiences; when a supervisor concludes a last-minute meeting with “Thanks, everyone, for rearranging your schedules on such short notice”, she communicates to her staff that she values their time and their work ethic. As a matter of fact empathy and ethics go hand in hand. Emotionally aware and sensitive people are more likely to be ethically grounded.
Over the past two decades, I have researched more than 50 rulers and the Prime Ministers of major kingdoms in Rajputana as part of my journey to write my first published coffee table book Rajputana Chronicles: Guns and Glories. I’ve found the defining characteristic of the best ones is bold strategy, courage, ethics and empathy that transformed their kingdoms.
Let me also share that empathy or sensitivity is perhaps the most underrated quality in the world. It’s too often associated with fragility and weakness when it’s actually a tremendous strength. Since sensitive people are intelligent enough to comprehend their own emotions, they’re also courageous enough to exhibit them in public. Good leaders possess a high degree of emotional intelligence. They understand both themselves and others. Individuals with these qualities are natural leaders.
As Emma Seppälä, Science Director at Stanford University Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, highlights:
“Managers may shy away from compassion for fear of appearing weak. Yet history is filled with leaders who were highly compassionate and very powerful — Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu, to name a few. They were such strong and inspiring leaders that people would drop everything to follow them.”
Dalai Lama once contended:
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive. Human suffering is frequently caused by an inability to entertain the perspectives and feelings of others.”
Learning Empathy and Ethics
Empathy and ethics are an intellectual quality, and it cannot be taught in the classroom. However, it can only be gained through multiple experiences.
To actively teach children empathy and ethics, parents can explain their own emotions, honesty, integrity, etc. during significant events. They can also discuss the emotions and ethics of the child as well as those of others. They can point out the connection between events and emotions.
Parents can model empathy by showing it when the child has a strong emotion, whether fear, surprise or something else. They can prompt empathy by asking the child questions like, “How do you think your brother felt when you threw his toy and it broke?” They can also praise the child for showing empathy, honesty, sincerity, etc.
Is it possible to increase cognitive, emotional and behavioural empathy through formal training in ‘Adults’? The methods used to teach someone to be more empathic are in many ways similar to those used to teach a new dance or how to give a good public speech.
Training typically includes:
The first part usually involves instruction about the benefits of showing empathy, how to identify emotions in others, how to feel those emotions and how to comment appropriately on them.
Next comes providing models of a person showing empathy in response to something another has said or done. The models can be live, on video or audio, or written. The situation optimally includes a positive response to the appropriate expression of empathy. The model might sometimes fail to show empathy and subsequently demonstrate a better response.
The third step is practice at showing empathy. This might occur live with the trainer or online in response to written or audio comments or actions of another person. The practice would include, when possible, showing empathy in real situations outside training sessions.
The last step involves constructive feedback on attempts to show empathy. The feedback typically includes praise when the person has reacted appropriately. It might also include information about how better to assess the emotion of another person or respond to the emotion.
We do not know for sure whether we can increase empathy and ethics in ordinary people through formal training. We also do not know whether it is possible to help anyone make a long-term gain in empathy and ethics.
Some people might be challenging to teach, either because they lack motivation to increase empathy or because they find it difficult to imagine how others feel. Sex offenders, for instance, could be hard to help, as could autistic individuals.