by Steve Adubato, PhD

There is a great book called, “Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens and Why It Matters,” (Harvard Business School Press) written by Barbara Kellerman. The book examines a series of case studies of “bad leadership” and focuses on the reasons for it.

Kellerman sites callousness as a negative trait many people in leadership positions exhibit. She says it is an apparent lack of empathy for the people affected by decisions made or not made. Consider the recent power outages in New York City and the problems Con Edison is having in getting that situation right. Thousands of residents were either without power or had “low voltage.” Businesses lost money and people suffered.

They continue to suffer, but ironically, the usually able and competent mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg seemed to miss the mark on this. In fact, Bloomberg praised Con Ed’s CEO Kevin Burke several days into the blackout and called the situation an “inconvenience” to those affected. Since then, the mayor has taken heat for those comments and CEO Burke has testified before government agencies saying he isn’t sure what caused the blackouts and what to do about it.

Q—Are you born with empathy? Do you learn it? Where does it come from?

A—Some people are born with it, but for most of us it is something we must work at. It doesn’t mean we are not concerned about other people, it means we really haven’t thought through how to communicate that concern. I’m not convinced Michael Bloomberg and Kevin Burke don’t care about residents and businesses without power, it is that they didn’t clearly communicate it.

Q—So empathy is a leadership technique or tool to be learned?

A—Not exactly. Either you care or you don’t. The issue comes down to what you show. I’m not convinced that people can be taught to care if they are truly insensitive. You could be exposed to things that open up your mind, but if at the core you are not emotionally connected, coaching won’t help. Some leaders think their primary job is to be a manager who gets things done in an efficient way. But management and leadership aren’t the same thing. Real leadership is a lot more than simply doing things right. Sometimes it means doing the right thing in an ethical and compassionate fashion.

Q—Can events or circumstances change a leader’s ability to communicate empathy?

A—Yes. In Kellerman’s book she sites former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani as an example of this. Kellerman says that before 9/11 Giuliani had a reputation for being a “my way or the highway” manager who was sometimes insensitive. In fact, when Amadou Diallo, an unarmed 22-year-old West African immigrant was shot at 41 times by New York police, some argue that Giuliani showed little compassion. Said Kellerman in her book, “There was no heartfelt expression of sympathy from the mayor, nor much apparent empathy for the large number of his constituents who chafed under his leadership…”

In April of 2000, polls showed that only 32 percent of New York residents approved of Giuliani’s handling of his job. But in the aftermath of 9/11, Giuliani showed an extraordinary degree of compassion and empathy. Apparently it was always there but for whatever reason he couldn’t or wouldn’t show it until this tragic event. Now, Giuliani is considered to be one of the country’s greatest leaders, not because he was an efficient manager, but because he brought people together in the worst of times.

So what is the message for the rest of us? Show that you care and don’t hold back. You can be a tough manager, but do it with a warm heart. That doesn’t make you weak; in fact it makes you strong. Your people will see it and your organization will greatly benefit.