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The stuff leaders are made of…?

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership lately. About how I can respect a person (like the guy I worked for at my first programming job) for their skills and abilities, while not necessarily respecting that person as a leader. And then there are other people that I do respect as leaders. What makes the difference?

The more I think about it, the more I think that a big part of it comes down to one thing, and that’s empathy.

Some of the people I’ve worked with, and for, simply don’t have it. They do things without it ever even occurring to them that those things will have an emotional impact. The capacity for empathy just isn’t in their wiring.

And it has a big effect. Which one is more effective? This:

This is really important for the success of the company. It has to get done. Make it happen.

Or this:

This is really important for the success of the company. I know you guys are going to have to put in a lot of sweat and tears on this, and I know some of it is going to suck in the short run. And believe me, I’ve been through these myself, and I’m with you in spirit. But it has to get done. I’m counting on you to make it happen.

Often, a lot of that is unspoken. It comes through in the tone of voice, the choice of words, even the eyebrows. But it comes through. Someone who acknowledges you as a human being, instead of treating you like a robot, is a hell of a lot more effective as a leader. Whereas someone who is in a leadership role, but just doesn’t have the gift of empathy, should seriously consider that maybe they’re in the wrong place. Or should find some other way to compensate for it.

I’m actually going somewhere with this.

Jennie started a new job this past Monday, doing phone surveys. It has its good points and its bad points so far. One of the good points is that she can set her own schedule.

One of the bad points is that any hours (or partial hours) that she’s not on the phones do not count. This is a detail that they forgot to tell her when she made up her schedule for the week. (In fact, it directly contradicts what they told her during training.) She spends time doing paperwork, trying to chase down a manager to approve her paperwork, trying to find somebody to get her another list of numbers to call when she finishes the last one. It adds up. The week is almost over, and the call center is not open enough hours between now and Sunday night (the official end-of-week) for her to meet the 40 hours she’s required to get.

The upshot is that, unless somebody from management intervenes, she will probably lose her job. And there won’t be any senior-enough managers in the office until Monday.

She wants to cut her losses, quit, and go spend her time looking for another job.

But while she’s looking, her paychecks will stop, and our mortgage won’t. My vote is to stick it out until Monday, and talk to a manager, and see what can be done. I can’t believe they would fire all of the new hires who happen to guess wrong when they schedule their first week.

I believe that for her to finish out today and tomorrow, and then go talk to a manager on Monday, is a logical, solid course of action. We’ve had a couple of brief phone conversations today, and I asked her to stick it out. I made suggestions on how she could deal with the frustration. I even asked her to promise to give it a fair shot. Try not to spend time worrying about losing your job; there’s nothing you can do until Monday. Take one day at a time. Make it through today. Think about the house. Think about the cats. I love you. Hang in there.

All, I hope, good advice.

But you know what? Advice is cheap. And now that I think back on it, I think I made a fatal mistake. I was taking the leadership role, by saying what needed to be done. But during those conversations, I don’t think I ever did anything to empathize.

I didn’t say that I know how maddening it must be. I didn’t say that I know how much effort it will be to make it through the day. I didn’t say that I’ve been through it before, and that I know how much it sucks. I didn’t say that I’m just as worried about her losing the job as she is. I didn’t say that I’m with her in spirit. I didn’t say how much I appreciate her being willing (however reluctantly) to go through with it. I didn’t say I’m counting on her, and that I believe in her, and that I know she can hang in there and make it through and get it done. I didn’t even say I’d give her a backrub when she got home.

I didn’t say any of that. It never even occured to me.

Nobody told me being a grown-up was going to be so damned hard! I think it’s important to stay calm and focused when things go wrong, but… well, if I’m telling my emotions to shut up so I can deal with the crisis, then I’m losing all touch with empathy. And turning into the same thing that infuriates me in other people.

No wonder Jennie got so frustrated talking to me this morning. (Among many, many other occasions.)

Jennie: I’m sorry. I’ll try my damndest to do better.

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