MLA AND LEADERSHIP: Learning Empathy

“You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit” – Willie Loman, Death of a Salesman

In Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman, Willie Loman ruminates on his life as a traveling salesman and the failure of America’s promise of success as a reward for hard work. This particular quote is from a scene where Loman confronts his boss, who fails to reward the hard-working Loman with a promotion from salesman to the main office. The boss, Wagner, is much more fascinated with technology, and prefers to focus on the future rather than on rewarding the dedication of a long-term employee. The story forces us to confront the challenges of creative destruction, the human dimension of management, and the nature of leadership.

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Peter Drucker believed that leadership consists of actions and behaviors rather than a certain set of traits and qualities. In other words, leaders are not born; leadership skills can be taught.

Drucker’s leadership model emphasizes three key responsibilities. Leaders must:

  • Communicate a clear mission to everyone in the organization;
  • Support followers in achieving the mission; and
  • Earn trust through their actions.

Congruence between the leader’s and the follower’s goals is critical to success. If the mission is sufficiently meaningful, the organization strives to make a real difference.  Mission statements can be aspirational but must be able to be implemented through concrete objectives and action items. MLA emphasizes the importance of organizations understanding that people need to find meaning in their work for them to be motivated. In Drucker’s words, organizations need to provide status and function to every person no matter their position. An aspirational mission statement allows everyone to be on the same page.

The leader must then be able to support everyone in achieving the mission, which is why the mission must be achievable and not TOO aspirational. A for-profit entity must still make a profit to survive. But it can, while making a profit, make a difference. Drucker wrote of the “Sprit of Performance,” where organizations have incredible esprit de corps and work together as a team or a collection of teams. Companies and other entities that have a spirit of performance have the following attributes:

  • They focus on the strengths of their members
  • They minimize weaknesses, and use others’ strengths to help cover weakness in the team
  • They insist on excellence and performance
  • They put people decisions in the fore, even before financial decisions at times
  • They insist on executive integrity
  • They provide a climate that inclines people to think better of themselves and be motivated to push themselves 
  • There is a climate of camaraderie 

Those involved in high-profile activities, such as Olympic sports teams, space exploration programs, and the performing arts, are very familiar with the concept of “Spirit of Performance.” But how does a leader instill this within the organization that engages in less glamorous activities? An aspirational mission statement that can still be grounded in management tasks helps lift everyone to see their role as more important than themselves. Your job becomes part of a larger whole rather than simply your job. This is crucial to MLA: understanding the connection to the bigger picture and being able to see how you fit in with the rest of the people in the organization, as well as the larger mission of the company.

Lastly, Drucker demands that leaders earn trust through their actions. What a leader does must consistently reflect the values of the organization. Drucker considered integrity the “touchstone” of management. Followers will forgive a lot in a leader, but not a lack of integrity.

More recent work on leadership has shown that empathy is a valuable skill; the Army Field Manual on Leader Development stresses that empathy is necessary for competent leadership. Empathetic leadership has strong correlation with job performance ratings, and substantial research has shown that, while some people are naturally more empathetic than others, it is a skill that can be learned. Encouraging leaders to develop their listening skills, to consider the perspectives of others (including those from other cultures and backgrounds) is increasingly important to being effective in our complex 21st-century world. As Drucker emphasized in MLA, management and leading others must always be centered on people, recognizing that we are dealing with human beings with their own strengths, weaknesses, and individual experiences and backgrounds. Empathetic leaders excel in understanding the human dimension of management and work relationships.

How can one develop empathetic leadership skills? Most coaching in this area focuses on case studies and role play, but there is some interesting new research that embodies the multidisciplinary nature of MLA. Drucker often used the fine and performing arts to illustrate a point he wished to make (for example, comparing knowledge workers to members of a symphony orchestra).  Advocates for the arts have long argued that creating and consuming fictional narratives leads to increased empathy. However, until recently, there has been little actual evidence to support these claims. A new study of people watching live theatre productions indicates that the experience changed their socio-political attitudes, and made them more inclined to contribute to charitable organizations (even those that had nothing to do with the subject of the plays that they watched. This peer-reviewed study indicates that empathy can be influenced by narratives highlighting the experiences of others. Perhaps, in addition to training leaders using role play and case studies, we should have them enjoy a night at the theatre. If management is truly a liberal art, maybe the arts have something to teach managers!

Today’s interest in empathy as a leadership skill fits with Drucker’s model of leadership. Clear communication and support for an inspirational mission, a climate of “Spirit of Performance,” trust – all are supported by empathetic leaders who can really listen to and understand people. How else can a leader assess strengths and weaknesses and make good people decisions, or create a climate where people want to excel and succeed? If Drucker used Goethe and Sherlock Holmes to make his points, why can’t we use Arthur Miller?​​​​

References

Gentry, William, Weber, Todd J., Sadri, Golnaz, “Empathy in the Workplace: A Tool for Effective Leadership,” White Paper, Center for Creative Leadership, New York, April 2007 (https://cclinnovation.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/empathyintheworkplace.pdf).

Gourguechon, Prudy, “Empathy Is An Essential Leadership Skill – And There’s Nothing Soft About It,” Forbes, Dec. 26 2017 (https://www.forbes.com/sites/prudygourguechon/2017/12/26/empathy-is-an-essential-leadership-skill-and-theres-nothing-soft-about-it/?sh=2d7955c62b9d).

Miller, Arthur, Death of a Salesman, New York, Viking Press, 1949.

Rathje, Steve, Hackel, Leor, Zaki, Jamil, “Attending live theatre improves empathy, changes attitudes, and leads to pro-social behavior,” upcoming publication in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 95, July 2021, accessed through Science Direct, May 18 2021 (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S002210312100038X).

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