Weak Empathy

I recently read in a Harvard Business Review article that the key to effective leadership in today’s world is to have empathy.

This is true.

The problem is that so many of us completely misunderstand the very meaning of the word, thus rendering its impact weak.

Empathy is not compassion, and compassion is not sympathy. Let’s start there.

Think of it like this:

• Sympathy is feeling bad for someone.
• Compassion is feeling pain with someone.
• Empathy is feeling passion towards someone.

Popular authors like Simon Sinek and Brené Brown have done a great service by highlighting the importance of empathy. Both use it as if it were interchangeable with sympathy and compassion, but it’s not. We have different words to describe different things for a reason.

Brené Brown suggests that empathy is on the opposite end of shame. Simon Sinek says that empathy is the ability to understand and share other people’s feelings, which is also a dictionary definition. I believe, however, that there is a much deeper and more meaningful understanding of empathy that is uncovered by a study of etymology. 

The word empathy comes from the Greek word em pathos which means in passion. My understanding is that originally, empathy meant being passionate towards, or about, someone else. I write about this extensively in Stage Three of The 6 Stages of Cultural Mastery.

Only when we are truly passionate about other people will we become excited about our relationships with them. This is important because true excitement is the absolute key to being an inclusive leader, as we only want to give people a meaningful seat at the table if we’re excited about what they bring to the table.

Think about our social programs for a moment. Programs built on sympathy and compassion will tend to create programs that keep people dependent on them. True empathy (passion towards others) will create excitement and empowerment, thus liberating the people we are empathetic towards. One act is dependent on the other, and I believe a proper understanding of empathy is the tipping point that gets us moving in the correct direction.

So, as much as I love and admire Brené Brown and Simon Sinek for their contributions to our world, I think they need to go deeper. True empathy isn’t on the opposite end of shame, it’s actually on the opposite end of sympathy.

Do you want to be a truly empathetic leader? If so, you’ll need to get to know your people so well that you learn to authentically admire their gifts, skills, and abilities. This is the only thing that will create passion in you towards them. And when you do that, you’ll get excited about the relationships, want to set a vision together, and then, and only then, will you be in a position to empower a vision that was co-created with the people you are passionate towards.

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