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Reflections on Human Empathy and Empathetic Leadership



Authors as Published

Note to Readers: This essay was originally prepared for delivery as the keynote speech at the James D. McComas Staff Leadership Seminar, Virginia Tech, on March 27, 2019.


Thank you very much for your kind invitation to speak today. It is indeed a privilege. Thank you, too, particularly, to Amy Ingram and the McComas Staff Leadership seminar committee as well as to Heather Parrish, a member of that group.

I know your day is devoted to exploring the topic of empathy. For my part in what I see is a rich day of reflection on a vital subject, which my Oxford English dictionary defines succinctly as, “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another,”  I would like to sketch a handful of basic points related to empathy and suggest their implications for leadership.[1]

I begin with what might be considered two paradoxes. The first paradox is the recognition that while humans are surely capable of empathy, that inclination can be overshadowed or overpowered by their similarly innate capacity for selfishness, cruelty and hatred. A second paradox is linked to the first: Empathy, as any value, can be well or poorly supported by communities and cultures. When badly sustained, many individuals will suffer needlessly and perhaps heedlessly and unduly since it is empathy that constitutes the glue among human beings in community, especially when those individuals are dissimilar from one another.

By dissimilar, I mean simply that they are of different genders, sexual orientations, tribes, ethnicities, religions, races, nationalities and so on. Amidst such heterogeneity, surely the case in the United States, we look to shared values—or to use the old-fashioned word, virtues, with empathy as a primary shared virtue—to allow us to live together peaceably and productively.

To say that human beings have the capacity to possess and exercise empathy is not the same thing as arguing that they will always do so. Instead, history is littered with examples of peoples, cultures and nations that eschewed empathy in favor of hatred and cruel othering on the basis of perceived differences, including, very often, it must be said, ignorant and/or abstract ideological claims. When taken to extremes, these episodes have resulted in cataclysmic wars and examples of human shame and depravity of unimaginable proportions, including Hitler and Germany’s Holocaust, Stalin and the USSR’s Gulags, Mao and China’s extermination campaigns and “Great Cultural Revolution,” Pol Pot and Cambodia’s Killing Fields, the Interahamwe and Rwanda’s genocide, Sukarno and Indonesia’s genocide, Turkey’s Armenian genocide and too many more to name here. What all of these tragedies have in common are leaders who actively attacked the very notion of empathy via appeals to fear and to abstract claims that degraded specific groups on the basis of supposed differences. These mass murder campaigns also always asserted that those killed were “undeserving,” and really not “human.”  Many also made simple-minded or ignorant arguments that did not persuade because prudent, but instead because predicated on fear or a dearth of understanding or both.

Indeed, it is difficult to convince any human being to kill another so long as he or she perceives them as like themselves in material respects. As a result, these mass murders were all led by individuals preaching polarization, fear and hatred. Each contended that one or another group was a threat and/or simply not human and therefore “worthy” of death—as savage as that may sound (and indeed is). As we speak today, exactly this process is unfolding in the genocidal persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar, and to lesser degrees similar processes are unfolding in many other nations, including our own. All of this is to say that one should not worry about empathy as a cultural disposition only when horrors of the sort that occurred or are occurring in the nations I have mentioned happen, but as an ongoing matter of social diligence and of the highest importance, so that the conditions that allowed those terrors to unfold cannot again be permitted to take root.

In short, we must live with the enduring paradox that humans are capable not only of extreme kindness, other-regardingness and compassionate empathy, but also of an absolute, empty and depraved cruelty and disregard for life. The issue for a free people should always be not only how to prevent the usurpation of the former by claims resulting in the latter, but also how to do so across generations and while allowing citizens broad capacity to make their own choices, even when those result in prejudice, discrimination and loathing. To say that doing this represents a signal and extraordinary social challenge is to state the obvious perhaps, but that fact should not dissuade you or me from recognizing that this valence may spell the difference between a culture that respects and maintains human and civil rights for all and one that sees their systematic and often ruinous usurpation and erosion, and along with that process, the end of freedom within its bounds. A central paradox that inheres in our common humanity is that we are capable of choosing between the extremes of evil and goodness and all points in between. And if we are free, we can do so with relative impunity, but should we choose cruelly, we will degrade our own human possibility and freedom, while maligning those we target at the same time.

A second paradox inheres within this one and it helps us understand the well-springs on which anti-empathetic action, large or small, occurs. This human inclination also occurs in many flavors, but it seems always to be founded on and arise from a discomfort and incapacity to accept and legitimate difference. That tendency, in turn, is mediated not only by individual reach and personality, but also by social expectations and dominant norms and values. The novelist Lynne Sharon Schwartz has offered a poignant account that treats this concern that appears in the current number of The American Scholar, the quarterly journal of Phi Beta Kappa.[ii] Her piece illustrates both the subtlety and ugliness of the “othering process.” Schwartz grew up in Brooklyn following the Second World War in a neighborhood that included individuals from around the world, including many East European Jews who either had fled the Holocaust, or who had emigrated following the conflict to flee horrific memories or to avoid the continuing discrimination aimed at Jews in many of that region’s nations.

Schwartz’s mother frequented a small grocery owned by a Mr. Blustein, an East European Jew, who, Schwartz’s mother told her, “had been through the war and lost his family.”[3] Now, Mr. Blustein said little, appeared gruff and was not physically attractive or friendly. All of this caused the young girl to develop, that is to say to imagine, stories about him and most especially, about his future. These often were ugly and found this strange but somehow imposing individual dying at the hand of some petty or powerful criminal or other. Schwartz feared him and now, reflecting decades later, realizes,

I wanted to get rid of him and what he represented—or rather what our encounters meant about both of us. I resented him for invading my narrow little world with his difference, his pain. Naturally, the older I got, the less frightened I was. He was simply the old familiar grocer; no longer a gruesome figure from a fairy tale. I hardly regarded him as a person at all. He was a function. But at some point, it occurred to me that although Mr. Blustein and I had known—or rather seen—each other for so long, we had barely exchanged two words besides my reading off the items on my mother’s [grocery] list.[4]

In short, even as a child and owing largely to the merchant’s perceived difference and her assumptions and fantasies, decidedly not realities, concerning who he was, Schwartz turned the shopkeeper into an ogre whom she both feared and loathed as a result. And even now, decades later, she wonders how she would react if she met him once more:           

Even today, if I happened to meet Mr. Blustein [impossible, as he surely died years ago]  I might not be capable of more than nodding, although I know now that despite his dead cigar and silence and stubby cheeks, more unites us than separates us, and surface details are no more than a thin skin over a common nature and destiny. I have educated myself out of my fear of difference.[5]

Despite her own growth and current ability not to fear and other individuals she perceives as somehow unlike herself, the novelist concluded her reflection by observing:

That store and that grocer do not go away, nor does the child I was, blinkered by the willful limits of the provinces— a child for whom the tangible was less real than a story. I have enlightened her, but she trails me like a shadow that even the light of understanding can’t erase, too close for comfort.[6]

Schwartz’s honesty should remind all of us that we must not only understand that we are capable of falling prey to “othering,” but also are very often willing to substitute a story, a fable or fantasy, about that which we fear or abhor, for reality. In Schwartz’s case, a grieving widow and immigrant struggling to make a living in a new land—because laconic and unknown—became an “other,” a monster really, about which virtually anything could be believed, and was.

I share this account precisely because it points to the universal character of such processes and to the difficulty of avoiding the empty hatred and cruelty they embody. I share the novelist’s experience, too, because democratic freedom has ever been diminished and lost when leaders seeking power are able to manipulate this very human proclivity to dehumanize one or more groups and convince some thereby to take away the rights of targeted groups on the basis of one or another abstract and unfounded claim. Mao and Stalin employed ideological othering, Hitler used a simple-minded and self-contradictory lie about Jews—as both simultaneously too powerful and canny and contemptible because not human—and so on. Schwartz’s essay reminds us that we are all subject to this possibility and to the calumny it represents. Since we almost never acknowledge this elemental characteristic of our natures or understand how it operates, that fact alone seems reason enough to point up this reality of human behavior.

Let me turn now to a brief description of what can be done in social terms to ameliorate, for we cannot eliminate, this tendency, so as to avoid the “othering” that leads to discrimination and the degradation of the rights of targeted groups. Duke University theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas has authored many books, including one of my favorites of his works, published in 1981, entitled A Community of Character. In it, Hauerwas argued that

An ethic of virtue centers on the claim that an agent’s being is prior to doing. Not that what we do is unimportant or even secondary, but rather that whether one does or does not act is dependent on possessing a self, sufficient to take responsibility for one’s actions.[7]

Now, this observation is relevant to a consideration of “othering” and empathy in two ways. First, it suggests that actually acting on that virtue does not come full born with our humanity. Instead, while present and nascent, it must be cultivated, and that acculturation is not simply or alone the product of our own will. Rather, we are encouraged, or not, by our families and community norms and values to learn to discipline our worst “othering” instincts in favor of empathy, and these are the product not of one moment alone, but of years of such efforts.  Hauerwas also sensitizes us to the fact that who we are in this vital sense precedes what we do and can shape our actions in profound ways. In this way, we all must develop, as Hauerwas observed, the “linguistic, rational and emotional skills sufficient to live in a community of which we are a part.”[8] We can only hope that we are a part of a society that helps us learn to discipline our fear, avarice and willingness to scapegoat and hate in favor of acknowledging human dignity and difference and encourages us to seek to understand the position and feelings of others. That is, we must hope our families and communities can continue to valorize and instill empathy among their populations.

Put differently, if Hauerwas is correct that our capacity to practice empathy is mediated not only by our personal will, but also by our families, neighborhoods and towns, then we must hope that the latter encourage us to develop norms and values appropriate to allowing us to do so. Unfortunately, I think our society’s trends are inauspicious in this regard. For 50 or so years now, our nation has embraced an ever more radical view of society as both descriptively and normatively market-centered and deeply and profoundly individualist in character. Indeed, it may not be too much to argue that many Americans now believe that the market alone can and should govern them and that they owe little or nothing to others, let alone to democratic decision processes or to claims that the norms of others can and should shape them. Many, in fact, have heard elected leaders tell them that taxes are a sort of theft and that those who receive public succor are never to be trusted and nearly always lazy and dependent. These individuals prefer to see themselves as self-created and self-sufficient beings and to imagine that a society can and should be so constituted; an oxymoronic impossibility.  

That is, our society has coupled individualism with consumerism to an unprecedented degree. And many of us have adopted wealth as our primary metric of our self-worth and privatism as the mode of living most likely to allow us to accumulate and enjoy our material gains. Columbia Theological Seminary theologian Walter Brueggemann, citing the Princeton University sociologist Robert Wuthnow’s work on America’s churches, has captured this perspective neatly.  He has argued, following Wuthnow, that preachers do a good job of promoting the community stewardship and values central to our nation’s major faith traditions and that Hauerwas has argued are essential to individual formation to empathy, but nevertheless these church leaders today encounter a population too often ill-equipped to hear their message,

They [preachers] study it, think about it, explain it well. But folks don't get it. Though many of us are well intentioned, we have invested our lives in consumerism. We have a love affair with ‘more’ — and we will never have enough. Consumerism is not simply a marketing strategy. It has become a demonic spiritual force among us, and the theological question facing us is whether the gospel has the power to help us withstand it.[9]

Given these social dispositions and direction, it may come as something of a surprise that several of the most influential and widely studied theories of leadership in the last 40 to 50 years, as this profound social marketization has occurred, have been developed on the basis of assumptions antithetical to this dominant trend. Indeed, it might be argued that the approaches that leadership scholars have most widely adopted and examined are fundamentally counter cultural in character. Perhaps the most famous of these was elaborated by Harvard University historian and political scientist James MacGregor Burns in 1978 in a book, entitled Leadership, that won the National Book award in the United States. In that text, Burns developed a construct he called “transforming” leadership (since relabeled transformative leadership by later scholars) that has perhaps been the single most influential conception of that phenomenon in the decades since its publication.     

For present purposes, it is significant that Burns established very high ethical expectations of would-be transformative leaders and that those claims implied their consistent practice of empathy:

Transforming leadership occurs when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality. … Transforming leadership ultimately becomes moral in that it raises the level of human conduct and aspiration of both leader and led, and thus it has a transforming effect on both.[10]

Burns’ exemplar of such a leader was Mahatma Gandhi, a quintessentially empathic figure. He argued that Gandhi addressed himself “to his followers’ wants, needs, and other motivations,” as well as his own and “thus served as an independent force in changing the make-up of the followers’ motive base through gratifying their motives.”

For Burns, transformative leaders accomplished these formative ends by force of example. So, one can see why Gandhi would be an archetype for him. In short, transforming leaders are preeminently empathetic leaders and the call on individuals who would seek so to serve is quite large. They are expected to model behaviors that not only shape their followers and encourage them to adopt uplifting moral and ethical claims, but also in so doing, to continue to cultivate their own behaviors and capacities. Conspicuously, they must rely deeply on empathy to do so. Transformative leaders, then, must elevate themselves ethically and professionally, provide support and conditions that would encourage their followers to do the same via empathy and meanwhile work to engage the capacities of themselves and their followers in a shared conception of their joint undertaking.

It seems important to point out that this ethically freighted view of leadership is rooted, finally, in a construct that views human beings as ends in themselves rather than means for other people and that requires leaders consistently to reflect and to act on the basis of empathic awareness and understanding. Likewise, this conception views individuals as free, endowed with reason and equal with respect to their dignity. And perhaps still more deeply, this perspective, which I am using illustratively, offers a resolution of the paradox that humans have exhibited nearly infinite capacity for empathy and goodness and an equally unfathomable capability for cruelty and hate throughout the existence of the species by relying on leaders to model and practice empathy. Rooted in empathetic imagination, transformative leadership suggests that humans can discipline their worst impulses and behave in ways that dignify and lift all.

While this conception is attractive, I must admit that I wonder if it is sufficient, for it assumes, as Brueggemann and Wuthnow have suggested is often not the case today, that such leaders will work with populations that can grasp the character of their claims and share their empathetic understanding of the issues in play. Perhaps, I suppose. One may hope that such leaders can reach beyond the utilitarianism, smallness and smug self-regard that so often pass for values in our communities today to something more and to open possibilities for empathetic understanding among those whom they seek to serve.

If they are to succeed in doing so, it seems to me they will also need wonder and imagination. As a practical proposition, followers ask leaders to help them make sense of the contexts and circumstances in which they find themselves—to provide plausible explanations for those scenarios. They can do so in empathy-informed ways by offering reasoned and factual accounts that hew to reality and that help followers both understand the possibilities and constraints confronting them and/or their organizations and the deeper reality that there can be no certainties in human existence.  Leaders who can evidence imagination diminish the possibilities for intolerance and “othering” by showing their followers how they can live with the uncertainty that arises from existence and the ambiguity that attends our daily lives. Rather, such leaders demonstrate that there are always possibilities inherent in exploring the manifold opportunities that life presents by embracing and practicing empathy, compassion and openness.

As the poet, priest and essayist John O’Donohue has argued:

Imagination never pretends to know it all. It never demands or claims an absolute standpoint, but it always relishes and celebrates the fact it is on the threshold where it cannot see everything.  The kind of knowing that is in imagination is knowing through exploration. It is not predetermined concepts or ideas.[11]

The English poet David Whyte, who was a close friend of O’Donohue’s, has put this insight of working to open possibilities this way in a poem entitled, “Just Beyond Yourself.” Here is a portion of that poem:

Just beyond Yourself.
It’s where
you need
to be.
Half a step
and the rest
by what
you'll meet.

There is a road always beckoning.
When you see
the two sides
of it
closing together
at that far horizon
and deep in
the foundations
of your own heart at exactly the same time,
That's how you know it's the road you have to follow...
Just beyond yourself.
It's where you need to be [12]

Whyte’s poem is a nice metaphor for the role of imagination in the dialectical unfolding of empathetic understanding and leadership, in which leaders and followers alike venture into the yet to be conceived and explore those possibilities as each grows by grappling with their individual and shared discoveries.

Empathy is closely linked to imagination, possibility and wonder, as it opens the door to new or alternate experiences. To nurture a capacity for wonder is to leave one’s mind open to experiences and alternatives and to avoid the omni-present possibility of variants of false certainty, dogmatism and fanaticism. The modern Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski has put this point well:

It is important for us to be uncertain about the deep motives for our own deeds and the grounds of our convictions, since this is the only device that protects us against an all justifying fanaticism and intolerance.[13]

It is precisely this self-awareness, it might also be said, as evidenced by the experience of the novelist Lynne Sharon Schwartz, that works against the disposition to other and to despise intolerantly in lieu of allowing learning to occur amidst openness and a genuine yearning for new possibility.

Or, as O’Donohue argued:

All thinking that is imbued with wonder is graceful and gracious thinking. … If you look at thought as a circle and half the arc of the circle is the infusion of wonder, then the thought will be kind, it will be gracious, and it will also be compassionate, because wonder and compassion are sisters.[14]

And empathy is both, as Hauerwas might say, the product of such self-disciplined thinking on the part of individuals and of their complex acculturation to that stance and perspective by the communities of which they are a part. It is both individual and social in character and dependent on learning that occurs within and between both.

Taken together these reflections on the character of empathetic leadership, and on the necessity for imagination and wonder it implies, suggest the compelling need for individuals (leaders) who can nurture an openness to possibility, can remain receptive in the face of ambiguity and who can take seriously the responsibility that such claims (disciplines really) represent. These individuals must be reflexive, responsive and capable of coping with paradox and systemic and enduring tensions. More, they must cultivate patience, forbearance and humility. Amidst today’s calls for false certainties, manufactured anger and rapacious scapegoating that appeal to human beings’ innate willingness to “other” when confronted by the new or different and therefore fear-inducing, these are doubtless countercultural capacities. But our future individual and collective freedom will depend heavily on individuals, just like each of you, developing and practicing empathy and empathetic imagination and wonder in your various roles, and doing so with deep self-awareness. You must, recognize the danger that O’Donohue described this way:

One of the sad things is that so many people are frightened by the wonder of their own presence. They are dying to tie themselves into a system, a role, an image or a predetermined identity that other people have actually settled on for them.[15]

In short, those O’Donohue described were too willing to constrict themselves to fear and othering rather than opening themselves up to the possibilities that inhere in the practice of empathy and its close companion, an openness to wonder. I urge you today to take that insight and counsel to heart and to reflect on how it might permit you to shape or reshape your outlook and behavior so as to weave empathy and wonder into who and what you are and may become.

Thank you very much. I would be happy to address any questions you may have.


[1] Brown, Lesley, Ed. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, “Empathy,” Oxford: Clarendon, Press, 1993, p. 808.

[2] Schwarz, Lynne Sharon. “The Man Behind the Counter,” The American Scholar (Spring, 2019), pp. 82-86.

[3] Schwarz, p. 83.

[4] Schwarz, p. 85.

[5] Schwarz, p. 86.

[6] Schwarz, p. 86.

[7] Hauerwas, Stanley. A Community of Character, Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981, p. 113.

[8] Hauerwas, p. 115.

[9] Brueggemann, Walter. “The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity,” The Christian Century, March 24-31, 1999, Accessed March 19, 2019.

[10] Burns, James MacGregor. Leadership, New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1978, p.20.

[11] O’Donohue, John in conversation with John Quinn. Walking on the Pastures of Wonder, Dublin, Ireland: Veritas Publications, 2015, p. 35.

[12] Whyte, David. The Bell and The Blackbird, “Just Beyond Yourself,” Langley, Washington: Many Rivers Press, 2018, pp. 21-22.

[13] Kolakowski, Leszek. Modernity on Endless Trial, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990, p. 83.

[14] O’Donohue, p. 22.

[15] O’Donohue, p. 28.

Publication Date

April 8, 2019