[*lovingly ripped off from REM and Kate Pierson, 1991, and in honor of Shiloh's love for the B52s ]
We talk a lot about the heart in this class. I like it. I especially like that it doesn’t sound maudlin, sappy or pathetic when we talk about it. It is something borne from strength, giving solid root to our plans, projects, and initiatives. It even invades personal conflict, allowing us to breathe deep and giving us the courage to admit mistakes and allow mistakes in others.
Having heart is what it means to be truly human. Now, here’s where it gets difficult. Because being human, as we all have witnessed, can be ugly and messy too. Which is why I like that our discussions in this class always return to the idea of the heart. It is this iteration that we need to make a habit. Like our morning cup of coffee or afternoon walk. For the first time in my own life, I will soon find myself in a place where I might be in a position of leadership, and frankly it scares me. But, reconnecting myself to this idea of the heart makes it less so.
I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy in leadership. Maybe because I have worked under many different supervisors, the majority of whom could be described as a “mixed bag” of strong and poor leadership traits. Gill Corkindale’s story in “The Importance of Kindness at Work” in which she was allowed to stumble, fall, and take time to brush herself off after a major crisis brought me back to my own similar experiences. On two occasions at work, I have had to deal with major times of grief and stress. The first was when my father died unexpectedly many years ago, and more recently when both my husband and mother were diagnosed almost simultaneously with cancer. For each of those instances I was working under two very different types of supervisors. With the first, there was little to no recognition of my loss. The second time around, I was infinitely more lucky. Guess which supervisor has become a role model for me?
Defining what traits make a leader has been an ever-changing and difficult business. Once, leaders were defined by innate qualities that were judged separately from any context that they functioned within, including interaction with subordinates. This is commonly referred to as the “heroic” conception of leadership (Holt and Marques, 2012). Leadership in contemporary times seems to require a great deal more. For example, emotional intelligence (EI) – the ability to perceive and evaluate emotions –has been referred to as the “sine qua non” of leadership (Kreitz, 2009). So, it’s not much of a surprise to find that one of the main components found in those who practice EI is empathy.
But what if you feel that your EI quotient is lacking? Is all hope lost? Not necessarily. Many researchers have concluded that EI traits can be developed through training and practice. Through the use of tools such as coursework, workshops, mentoring, on-the-job coaching and rigorous self scrutiny and practice, a manager can develop a stronger EI (Kreitz, 2009). So, learning to wear your heart on your sleeve can open up your ability to connect with others thereby strengthening your workplace overall.
Cultivating an intelligent heart and recognizing that our work places are made up of humans, with very human needs, is really a courageous act. Librarians are no slouches when it comes to courage, so I am sure you are not surprised when I tell you that the supervisor I mention above that exhibited compassion and empathy in my time of crisis was a Library Director. Libraries are often referred to as the “heart” of their communities. There is no reason why this cannot be extended internally into the workplace. I believe we all can take our hearts and do what Michael and Kate implore us to do:
“Take it into town…”
“Put it in the ground…”
“Throw it all around…”
p.s. If you ever find yourself in a supervisory position and need to handle a co-worker who is expereiencing a deep emotional crisis due to a loss of some kind, this site has a lot of good links to follow: http://www.noah-health.org/en/mental/disorders/grieving/what/work.html
Corkindale, G. (2011). The Importance of Kindness at Work. Harvard Business Review Blog Network. Retrieved from: http://blogs.hbr.org/corkindale/2011/04/the_importance_of_kindness_at.html
Holt, S. and Marques, J. (2012). Empathy in leadership: Appropriate or misplaced? An empirical study on a topic that is asking for attention. Journal of Business Ethics, 105(1), 95-105. DOI 10.1007/s10551-011-0951-5
Kreitz, P.A. (2009). Leadership and emotional intelligence: A study of university library directors and their senior management teams. College and Research Libraries, 70 (6), 531-554.