Listening to a recent interview of Marshall Goldsmith about the limits of empathy reminded me of how critically important this pillar of leadership really is. He talked about different types of empathy and how the benefits of each also have downside risks if leaders are not careful in how they apply them.
Among other quotes Goldsmith offered was one from Allen Mulally, former CEO of Ford. Mulally has said, "for the great achiever it may be all about me, but for the great leader, it is all about them." This quote is useful in many contexts, but Goldsmith offered it as a caution about how leaders use their authenticity or demonstrate empathy for the wrong reasons. Being authentic with your teams -- demonstrating trust in them by transparently offering some part of yourself -- is critical to establishing an environment of emotional and psychological safety. But 'oversharing,' or sharing gratuitous details as a form of personal catharsis, just to get something off your chest, is a selfish form of authenticity. Oversharing doesn't benefit the team or the culture you're trying to create, it only benefits you.
Likewise, it is critically important to understand and use empathy in your leadership, but you have to appreciate the why of it, as well as the how. Empathy is a tool to help you connect with another person. In doing so, your understanding and appreciation of their position is increased, but your words and actions should also have an effect on them. Goldsmith gave a powerful example of an inappropriate use of empathy when he talked about visiting a children's hospital working to treat pediatric cancers. Children were scared and suffering, in various stages of treatment. It was a heartbreaking scene and understanding their pain, fear, and uncertainty is valuable in making connections with them. But demonstrably reflecting those feelings by crying and lamenting their condition would, in many cases, only fracture a delicate emotional balance. The children needed and wanted to be reminded that they are still children, not just the disease that is killing them, and demonstrating emotional empathy in that instance only makes you feel connected to them but may undermine their feelings and make them feel less connected to you. In that instance, your demonstrated empathy is for you, not them.
I will return to this idea of here for them vs. here for you in the future, but for now, remember that the empathy that helps you create emotionally connected, supportive teams can also undermine those connections if you're not careful.
Goldsmith's cautions about the dark side of empathy are useful, but they shouldn't scare us away from embracing empathy as a fundamental part of how we lead. As a profession (and like most people in leadership positions across industries), lawyers need to get better as using empathy at all before we start worrying about using it too much. Learning to appreciate others' experiences, perspectives, and motivations can go a long way to building the teams and culture our firms need to thrive in challenging times and competitive markets.