empathetic leadership

Why This Pandemic Requires Empathetic Leadership

December 4, 2020

Russ Ewell

Empathy is an antidote.

Daniel Goleman, What Makes a Leader

“Empathy is an antidote” is a phrase used by Daniel Goleman in “What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters” to describe the importance of empathy for leaders who want to develop a “deep understanding of both the existence and the importance of cultural and ethnic differences.” 

The simplicity and power of the phrase “Empathy is an antidote” cannot be underestimated in 2020. This year has turned out to be one of the more painful and angry years in my lifetime. These two things, pain and anger, have sent me back to my leadership toolbox to learn what skills need to be sharpened or developed for the first time. 

What I discovered is I don’t like pain or anger. I don’t like feeling either one. Both create enormous levels of negative emotion which in turn increase my levels of stress. While examining my own life and discussing lessons learned in conversations with friends, it became clear my experience was not singular. They too were being bombarded by the pain and anger so prevalent in 2020.

Unsurprisingly, among my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, an interesting group appeared. There were those who seemed impervious to the pain and anger of this politically polarized pandemic age.

empathetic leadership

Deeper discussions revealed these stoically impervious were not so much unaffected as they were unaware. They had chosen to harden, distancing themselves from the realities, choosing to ignore the politics and deny the pandemic. 

This led to an overly simplistic but helpful set of categorizations. My community of relationships landed in one of two groups: the ‘overwhelmed’ and the ‘unaware.’ Each responded to the distressing nature of our times in different and ineffective ways.

What I have learned cannot possibly be explained in this brief reflection, but these thoughts and those that follow can start a conversation. How can we face the realities of our times without becoming emotionally overwhelmed or numb? The answer: ‘Empathy is the antidote.’

Empathy and Compassion

A well-honed Other awareness takes the form of heightened empathy, the ability to sense how others think and feel. Tuning in to the inner world of other people creates a platform for concern about their problems and pains – in other words, compassion.

Daniel Goleman, What Makes a Leader

Mr. Goleman untangles the common confusion surrounding the words “empathy” and “compassion.” He teaches us that “tuning in to the inner world of other people creates a platform for concern about their problems and pains,” then clears up the confusion by explaining that this “capacity to tune in” is empathy which makes compassion possible.

Oxford Dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Merriam-Webster defines compassion as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”

When we are empathetic, we possess what Mr. Goleman calls “Other awareness,” which is the ability to walk through life without being self-consumed, a mental and emotional acknowledgement that those life forms passing by are human beings. They are people, not opponents or obstacles, not hindrances to our happiness, but people with whom we have far more in common than those things that might divide us.

Once we possess this empathy or “Other awareness” we become capable of sympathizing with the suffering of others, which activates compassion or the desire to do something to alleviate their pain.

Pandemic Pain and Grief

Hanging up the phone meant it was over. And so I stood, motionless, staring through now-blurry eyes into the vast expanse of what lay ahead. “All right” meant my father was dying; “peaceful” meant he was sedated. This was what I was supposed to hope for, just four days after his hospitalization with Covid-19. A peaceful death.

Sonja Mackenzie, The Particular Pain of Pandemic Grief

Sonja Mackenzie writes for those who experience the pain of pandemic grief as well as those of us who hear about or observe its effect. She writes to enlighten when she says, “Pandemic death is particularly cruel. It preys on the vulnerable. We all hold a collective grief and loss in this pandemic.”

Whether the pain of this pandemic makes us feel overwhelmed or numb, we are all affected. Both responses are emotional, even spiritual. Both can create a resistance toward feeling empathy and compassion. Call it pandemic fatigue.

Pandemic Fatigue

There is a deliberate paradox in the term “the school of life.” School is meant to teach us what we need to know to live and yet, as the phrase ruefully suggests, it is most often life—by which we really mean painful experience—that does the bulk of the instruction for us.

Alain de Botton, The School of Life: An Emotional Education

Covid-19 has spread pandemic pain to every aspect of life and region of the world creating “pandemic fatigue”— the desire to avoid, escape, and if necessary, deny the pandemic pain affecting our lives. 

Alain de Botton calls what the world is experiencing “The School of Life.” Rare has been the occasion when the whole world is taking the same class in this school at the same time (World War I, the Spanish Flu, World War II being other examples).

When life begins to teach us, the only control we have is our response. We can choose empathy and compassion or bitterness and anger. The choices we make will determine how this pandemic shapes the future of our families, communities, and, at the risk of being melodramatic, the world.

The choice of how I would handle pandemic pain was made when I received the painful news an older mentor had passed from this life followed by the words: “it was coronavirus.” Until that moment, the “coronavirus” was a fearful threat for us because of our family’s immune vulnerabilities, but it had not yet become personal.

This event from 6 months ago had been packed away with all the other losses from 2020: plans canceled, friends unseen, opportunities missed. We were learning to live with the constant threat and staggering anxiety of the pandemic until the pain intruded again.

As recently as this week the pain of this pandemic struck again, all in the span of an hour. First, I learned about the intense and personal relationship pain of a friend, the type of pain unlikely to have happened pre-pandemic, because there would have been more support for all involved.

Second, I learned about the unexpected death and tragic loss of a person in my spiritual community, not from Covid-19, but from one of those sudden failures of health to which we are all vulnerable on any given day. Both events are made more painful because of this pandemic. 

These 9 months of pandemic pain have given me too many hours like this, moments of pain where I was forced to choose between numbness or feeling, bitterness or empathy, anger or compassion.

After many conversations, the reality that I am not alone is oddly comforting. From talking to family and friends, relationships at church, and in the neighborhood, I have found that all of us have the shared experience of pandemic pain and the choice of how we will respond.

Pandemic Loss

Covid-19 deaths are now at 273,000 and counting, and economic destruction has left just over 11 million people unemployed with untold numbers of small business owners watching their dreams, as well as decades of investment in people and communities, wiped out.

When I tally up the friends and family affected by this pandemic, I think of those who have had health scares made more dangerous because of the hesitation we all have about visiting doctors. I think of the lonely surgeries, postponed weddings, forgotten birthdays, relationships broken by the distrust of distance and isolation, the erosion of mental health from lockdowns, the loss of faith due to the closing of churches and elimination of fellowship. I think of the loss of educational progress and emotional development with the closing of schools, the unexamined consequences of replacing face-to-face interaction with digital connections, marriage and family splits made more likely without the strengthening of spiritual and emotional community.  

All of this distance and disruption creates fertile ground for bitterness to grow in the fields of relationship isolation where it becomes easier to dehumanize and hate than to empathize and forgive.

Amidst the darkness of our times, is there any hope? Yes, but first we must face and deal with our anger problem.

Our Anger Problem

“I’m tired, boss. Tired of bein’ on the road, lonely as a sparrow in the rain. Tired of not ever having me a buddy to be with, or tell me where we’s coming from or going to, or why. Mostly I’m tired of people being ugly to each other. I’m tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world everyday. There’s too much of it. It’s like pieces of glass in my head all the time. Can you understand?”

– John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) in The Green Mile (1999)

The Green Mile is a movie I watched too many years ago to remember, but the sense of the film remains. It was sobering and sad, deep and illuminating, albeit filled with outdated racial stereotypes. Yet, in its profound moments, it nails the target: the cruel coldness of our culture, one increasingly inclined to choose anger and hate over empathy and forgiveness. 

On January 3, 2016 an article appeared in Esquire magazine called “American Rage” based on an Esquire/NBC Survey about anger in America. Four years later the article appears prescient. 

Seventy-three percent of whites say they get angry at least once a day, as compared with 56 percent of blacks and 66 percent of Hispanics. Seventy-seven percent of Republicans get angry at least once a day, as compared with 67 percent of Democrats. The least angry household-income brackets: the very rich ($150,000-plus) and the very poor ($15,000 and less). The most angry: the middle of the middle class ($50,000 to $74,999).

American Rage: The Esquire/NBC News Survey

Putting aside our bias toward the source or particulars of this quote, we can certainly agree America has had and continues to have an anger problem based on the ‘eye test’ (personal experiences and observations).

Luke Fernandez and Susan J. Matt touch on the technological amplification of this “American Anger” in “Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid: Changing Feelings about Technology, from the Telegraph to Twitter,” making the point that anger was a challenge at the dawn of the letter writing age when letters written on physical paper, placed in physical envelopes with a stamp were how people sustained long distance relationships.

According to Fernandez and Matt society had to develop an understanding of the amplifying power of the physical letter, then develop rules to keep their communication from a distance from destroying relationships.

These rules limiting anger in familial and friendly relations also applied to the communications one had at a distance. As Americans became a nation of letter writers in the nineteenth century, they gradually adopted conventions designed to reign in anger. In an editorial reprinted across the country, readers learned the perils of long-distance anger. 

Luke Fernandez and Susan J. Matt, Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid

They go on to describe an editorial from that period based on an Anthony Trollope novel. Reading a brief section of the editorial reveals an applicability not only to the letter writing age but the technological one in which we live today.

The piece, adapted from a passage in an Anthony Trollope novel, warned, An angry letter, especially if the writer be well-loved, is much fiercer than any angry speech, so much more unendurable. There the words remain scorching; not to be explained away, not to be atoned for by a kiss, not to be softened down by the word of love that may follow so quickly upon spoken anger.

Heaven defend me from angry letters! They should never be written.… This, at least, should be a rule through the letter-writing world, that an angry letter shall [not] be posted till four and twenty hours shall have elapsed since it was written.

Luke Fernandez and Susan J. Matt, Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid

Malcolm Gladwell adds to this conversation in his book “Talking to Strangers,” where he makes an attempt to ‘explain the social dysfunction in the United States’ connected to racism, a message described by his subtitle, “What we should know about the people we don’t know.”

One of the stunning aspects of the book is how we differ when it comes to the question of who is or isn’t angry. At one point he describes a test based on a picture of someone who has an angry face. We learn that people from different parts of the world interpret anger differently. So this face most westerners would consider angry, others may identify as happy, sad, and even fearful. But not angry.

Gladwell makes the case that when police officers and African Americans interact in stressful conditions it is a case of “talking to strangers,” where assumptions are made about what facial looks or physical actions might mean, but because of the lack of experience with people different than themselves, the ignorance and misinterpretation results in death. 

I might add, this misinterpretation is easier to make by someone who is already angry and bitter about life. Based on what we saw from the “American Rage” article, that is a large number of people.

I am not doing justice to either of these books, but for our purposes it is important we understand we were living in an angry and dehumanizing world prior to 2020, one where distant technological communication and lack of experience with people different than us made us ripe for social upheaval when Covid-19 landed on our shores. 

It has made anger and hate easier choices than empathy and compassion, because finding an enemy to blame is always easier than searching inward for understanding and the ability, if necessary, to forgive.

The distressing and distancing impact of this pandemic has accelerated our national inclination to be angry, leading to increased polarization, resulting in greater economic destruction and social damage than necessary (The Great AccelerationHow The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Accelerating The Future of Work, The Pandemic Will Accelerate History Rather Than Reshape It).

These are hard times. Everyone is being affected, and while we may be tempted to be hopeless, there are two powerful reasons for optimism. The first, vaccines are on the way, and by most estimates, we should be back to normal between June and September. The second reason is we can choose to feel rather than be numb, to empathize rather than indulge bitterness, to be compassionate instead of angry.  

By making these choices, we can renew and heal our families, local communities, businesses, educational institutions, and religious houses of worship, along with government at all levels—the institutions which hold this country together. Our individual actions are that powerful.

Empathetic Leadership

What does all of this have to do with leadership? Unless we come to grips with the accelerating impact of the pandemic, our leadership will be ineffective. We must begin where we are: at home, work, and our communities.

 Personally, this has been a tough learning curve for me, because I am as angry and frustrated with lockdowns and the constant fear from the pandemic as anyone. What is apparent to me is that there is only one way out of this without destroying each other or at least doing significant relational and societal damage. 

We must become empathetic leaders, because these are the only leaders with the capability of effecting a solution powerful enough to successfully navigate these difficult times.

This solution is forgiveness, one of the most profound results of empathy-inspired compassion. Forgiveness born from empathy inspired-compassion may be different than we think, so it is important to define it properly, something Drs. Sidney B. Simon and Suzzane Simon do in their book titled “Forgiveness.”

“Forgiveness is a by-product of an ongoing healing process. Many of us grew up believing that forgiveness was an act to be performed or an attitude to possess, and the reason that we could not forgive was that we were not trying hard enough. But what really keeps us from forgiving the people who hurt us is that we have not yet healed the wounds they inflicted.

Dr. Sidney B. Simon & Suzanne Simon, “Forgiveness.”

While the idea that forgiveness begins with working out our own unfinished business may not be completely new, it is easy to forget a simple truth in the midst of our pain.

Forgiveness is the gift at the end of the healing process. We find it waiting for us when we reach a point where we stop expecting “them” to pay for what they did or make it up to us in some way.”

Dr. Sidney B. Simon & Suzanne Simon, “Forgiveness.”

The empathetic person, and in particular the empathetic leader, has worked out his or her unfinished business. Working out this unfinished business usually means unlocking the doors we have closed to our pain, be it pre- or post-pandemic, doors which once unlocked remove any tendency to be emotionally flat, unaware, unresponsive, or unavailable.

Gary’s emotional flatness exemplifies what psychiatrists call alexithymia, from the Greek a-for “lack,” lexis for “word,” and thymos for “emotion.” Such people lack words for their feelings. Indeed, they seem to lack feelings altogether, although this may actually be because of their inability to express emotion rather than from an absence of emotion altogether.

Daniel Goelman, “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ”

Empathy is impossible unless we do the hard work of exploring our inner life, opening the closed doors, tearing down the walls, and removing the obstacles we have placed in the path of our feelings which long to exit and be expressed. Removing this emotional scaffolding helps us to become self-aware and able to choose to feel rather than be numb, empathize rather than entertain bitterness, and express compassion instead of anger.

empathetic leadership

Empathy builds on self-awareness; the more open we are to our own emotions, the more skilled we will be in reading feelings. Alexithymics like Gary, who have no idea what they feel themselves, are at a complete loss when it comes to knowing what anyone else around them is feeling. They are emotionally tone-deaf. The emotional notes and chords that weave through people’s words and actions—the telling tone of voice or shift in posture, the eloquent silence or telltale tremble—go by unnoted.

Daniel Goelman, “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ”

I am convinced the majority of people who struggle to forgive have not looked under the hood to discover their empathy and compassion deficits, those things that keep us emotionally tone-deaf which make the dehumanizing acts of anger and hate tolerable.

This “looking under the hood” of our inner life is something I had to do in my own life even after making the spiritual decision to adhere to the Christian faith. I learned much of my faith was about behavior. Modifying the outward had no impact on my inner life whatsoever. I had to go inside to change the outside, digging up ground that revealed internal dysfunctions developed from my youth as protections against the pain of life.

Once I resolved these issues (what I like to call my “unfinished business”), my emotional clarity allowed me to avoid the tragic failing of emotional intelligence that had kept me from understanding, let alone practicing, empathy. Confusion was replaced with clarity, my masquerade was ended, and my true self emerged. I was no longer bewildered. 

Confused about their own feelings, alexithymics are equally bewildered when other people express their feelings to them. This failure to register another’s feelings is a major deficit in emotional intelligence, and a tragic failing in what it means to be human. For all rapport, the root of caring, stems from emotional attunement, from the capacity for empathy.

Daniel Goelman, “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ”

Empathetic leadership is the most important form of leadership for our turbulent times. And yet, it is the most difficult to develop, because it comes not from talent or training programs, but the courageous personal work to root out our dysfunctions so we can choose feelings over numbness, empathy over bitterness, and compassion over anger.

This age of the coronavirus is a crisis, but if we choose to become empathetic leaders and people it could turn out to be one of the greatest opportunities and blessings of our lifetime.