Thursday 5 June 2014

Authentic leadership shaped by empathy

In policy making and governance, we often look at creating conditions that are best for achieving an objective, setting rules, norms and creating incentives for it. Usually the objective is driven by what society values and often contingent upon majority acceptance of the view, at least in a democracy.
It is therefore incumbent upon policy makers and government to be sensitive about the priorities and needs of the people in line with values of society. Unfortunately, because those in leadership positions, as others, are usually given to be guided by their own experience and values, there can often arise a mismatch in the needs of society and what leaders believe is a priority. This is one of the reasons why people have often said that the most effective leaders are those who are most in touch with their followers.
Take for example today’s news of an Indian Minister Harshvardhan stating that given the loss of a friend and compatriot Mr. Gopinath Munde (Minister for Rural Development) in a car accident, has suddenly made him realize the importance of wearing seat belts in the rear seats of an automobile, and now there will be campaigning and movement on that front. On one hand while we have reason to be grateful that this is being noticed, on the other hand we have to seriously consider that if to gain perspective around something as elementary as basic human safety in cars, it takes a minister a grievous loss at a personal level, then there is definitely a lot to be desired in how governance works. In society we already have countless people who have lost lives to such avoidable circumstances and yet we find no answer to these situations and find such issues languishing in policy and governance focus and priority.
We all know that governance has myriad shortcomings, we want to focus on understanding fundamental realities that really bring about the gap. We also want to understand how we can go about addressing needs with a positive constructive approach.
Now think if it takes personal loss for a leader to recognize something so basic, it would mean we should hope for leaders to experience every kind of loss so they are sensitive to their constituencies’ needs. Ofcourse that is neither possible nor desirable. Therefore we must consider this shortcoming and see how we can overcome it.
If we analyse this from various dimensions, we will find a case for having more authentic leadership.  The idea is to position leaders’ incharge of things that they feel strongly about, which is reflective of their own values that find resonance with society’s values. Not just the top leaders but those who are in every other position of responsibility as well, for we know leaders are dependent on their entire support system to achieve results. Across society, this is where we lack and in areas where we progress, generally, this is where things are different. We are a society that is largely focused on competence and tenure, which is no doubt important, but to achieve truly progressive results requires a more authentic and holistic approach to leadership at every level. It involves passion and perspective that is most emphatically shaped by our experiences, emotions and values.
As humans most of us have some inherent capacity for empathy, which often gets triggered by our own experiences of emotion especially the strong emotions associated with pain and suffering. As we begin to realize the emotions and attribute them to a certain set of circumstances, we begin to get sensitive to others finding themselves in that position as well as what they may experience. It is not necessarily a true indicator of what others feel, but often a projection of what we assume people feel in those situations. We also pick up these indicators through a person’s tone of voice, facial expressions and other subliminal sensory mechanisms that we use. This allows us to predict what others might feel and think in those situations and help us with our relationships and decision making.
Based on our collective experiences and related emotional attributes we often share and develop common understanding of various aspects of human behavior including motivation and situational impact. This along with the values we espouse is used to inform our decisions.
As leaders we are quite often more worried about issues such as compliance, maintaining structures, narrowly defined results and attrition, than having people find their passion and find them roles that they feel strongly about and achieving better results for themselves, others and society as a whole. We must realize that we cannot use everyone else’s experience, but we can help them make best use of theirs.
It is important to focus on development of leaders as a critical start point, having them experience holistic development approaches and helping them connect their own experiences with their values and how they see and work in the world. It is also important to see how each one of us is shaped through the same mechanism; everyone else is only another version of us. Once they understand this, it is important that they prioritize and invest in holistic and authentic development of others. Not guided by a limited view of minimum skills for livelihood to curb social unrest and meet target figures, maintaining the status quo, or limited by current job descriptions and the current organizational needs, but as a human who has valuable and real experiences, values, emotions and the potential to contribute something truly meaningful to society. To help them discover, develop and express the power they have to take themselves, their organization and our society towards true progress with passion.   

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