A powerful problem


If you like us on Facebook, you might have seen me share a recent NPR article reporting on recent research on the link between power and empathy.  Neuroscientists examined the way power impacts the way the brain works – specifically the “mirror system,” an important correlate of empathy.  Researchers found that when people feel more powerful, the mirror system is less active; when people feel powerless, the mirror system is more active.  Power really does go to people’s heads.  Related research in other fields supports this finding: power makes people more self-focused and less empathetic.

Our LinkedIn followers may have seen this Harvard Business Review blog post about gender discrepancies in leadership.  The author asserts that too often we misconstrue confidence, charisma, and charm for leadership potential. For example, research show that in leaderless groups, emergent leaders tend to be arrogant and narcissistic.  But if we look at truly good leaders, they tend to be humble and empathetic – they are quick to give credit and praise, they focus on inspiring others, and they work for the common good.  Intriguing gender differences aside**, the perplexing paradox is that we are all too quick to promote people who possess the opposite attributes that would make them effective leaders.

I have been bothered by what seems to be a fundamental disconnect between what we know about leadership and successful organizations and what actually happens day to day in offices across the country.  Brighter minds than mine have written cogent arguments for the business case for cultivating compassion and empathy and so-called “soft skills,” and shown how crucial they are to the other oft-neglected but frequently espoused software of organizations (e.g., mission, vision, and values). We have a pretty good understanding of what makes employees light up at work vs. tune out, but a disturbing proportion of the workforce reports being disengaged and burnt out.

These two sets of findings suggest a crisis of leadership that helps me better appreciate the underpinnings of this disconnect.  The fact that we are more likely to promote to leadership positions people who are least likely to possess the qualities necessary to truly and effectively lead others is mind-blowing (though perhaps, not shocking).  The problem is exponentially compounded that when people are in powerful positions, they are physiologically less likely to demonstrate the empathy they need to be effective leaders.

These are distressing findings and trends, but, happily, there is a whole industry of professionals trained in and passionate about leadership coaching.  And coaching can help here – it can help people cultivate empathy, compassion, and insight, the basic building blocks of self-awareness and interpersonal skills, which themselves serve as a foundation for countless leadership competencies.  The degree of success of an organization hinges on the personal effectiveness of the individuals leading it, but there are built-in stumbling blocks to surmount. What these findings suggest to me is that leadership coaching can’t be a nice-to-have perk, but a must-have development tool if we are to build a critical mass of leaders who are capable of thriving in today’s business environment.  We need to keep shifting gears from old frameworks and paradigms to one that embraces (vs. gives lip service to) the concepts and approaches that actually work today’s world.


**Personality research shows important gender differences to consider: women tend to be more emotionally intelligent than men; they are more sensitive, considerate, and humble; and men are consistently more arrogant, manipulative, and risk-prone. The implication is that men are more likely to demonstrate the attributes that will get them promoted as leaders, but women are more likely to demonstrate the attributes that will make them successful leaders.