What makes a leader? Empathy

April 10, 2009, 11:52 PM UTC

Empathy. It’s a not a word that usually comes up first and foremost when people talk about leadership.

But it should.

I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy–the capacity to see things as others do. Consider Detroit’s myopic auto executives, Wall Street’s clueless CEOs and the many arrogant titans of industry who have stirred populist wrath. Many have fallen because they’ve failed to understand how their actions–their planes, their perks, their out-sized bonuses–play in the public sphere.

Empathy is critical lately, but lack of it has long been a CEO career killer and will be forever more. Through two decades of reporting, I’ve seen it dozens of times. One of the most memorable: Doug Ivester, the onetime accountant who headed Coca-Cola a decade ago and knew the numbers cold, never understood the power of perception. A tipping point before his forced exit was a 1999 crisis in Belgium, when parents claimed that  Coke products had sickened their children. Ivester dismissed the hullabaloo, leaning on lab tests that indicated no health hazard at all. The data, you see, didn’t matter as much as consumer perception. Ivester lacked the ability to see the problem through Belgian eyes and paid for his errors with his career.

I’ve been thinking about empathy also because we now have a President of the U.S. who gets it. Last night, there was the Seder at the White House–apparently the first time ever a President hosted a Passover dinner there.

Obama is a Christian, and maybe because he spent part of his childhood in a Muslim country, he’s good at stepping out of his own shoes. On Monday, speaking to Turkey’s Parliament in Ankara, he spoke graciously about Muslim-Americans, noting that many Americans “have Muslims in their family, or have lived in a Muslim-majority country.” Then he added, “I know, because I am one of them.”

It was a bridge-building moment for America.

This empathy carries with it awareness, and it plays out in gestures big and small. I loved this story, from an op-ed column by A.A. Gill in last Sunday’s New York Times, about the President’s visit to British PM Gordon Brown in London:

It’s invariably the little things, the unconsidered, off the cuff, in passing, unrehearsed things that snag our attention, and seem to be telling of the bigger things. In the case of Barack Obama’s first visit to London and the Group of 20 conference to save the endangered habitat of bankers and real estate salesmen, it was the handshake with the bobby that seemed to be emblematic. In a forest of waving palms, this handshake meant more.

As the president stepped up to 10 Downing Street, he leant over, made eye contact, said something courteous, and shook the hand of the police officer standing guard. There’s always a police officer there; he is a tourist logo in his ridiculous helmet. He tells you that this is London, and the late 19th century. No one has ever shaken the hand of the policeman before, and like everyone else who has his palm touched by Barack Obama, he was visibly transported and briefly forgot himself. He offered the hand to Gordon Brown, the prime minister, who was scuttling behind.

It was ignored. He was left empty-handed. It isn’t that Mr. Brown snubbed the police officer; he just didn’t see him. To a British politician, a police officer is as invisible as the railings.

But the rest of us noticed.

Who do you think is the most empathetic leader in the corporate world? Let me know.

Have a good weekend. Try stepping out of your shoes.