It seems to me have a good, empathic character is not really appreciated.  An uncle-in-law, a teacher whom I admire, said at his 70th birthday party, noting that all his relatives were either teachers, nurses, police or similar, ‘No one in this family will ever get rich.  We are too community minded and in trades that help the community.  There is no money in that.’  They were all leaders and able to exert influence on a large range of men, women and children.  But none were leaders in the business or political sense of the word.

This morning I read an article on research in leadership on page 14 of the New Scientist dated 24 September 2011.  It discussed the trait of empathy and how this can make good leaders.  It used an example of a great teacher who exerted a good influence over children in her classes over many years.  Just like John, my uncle-in-law and Dianna another leader and wonderful teacher.  Most of us could name several people like this.

The article noted that empathy and agreeableness made good leaders.  And when thinking about those people I think of as good leaders, I couldn’t agree more.  I would add a conviction of purpose to that list – a conviction that there is good in most people and it is their role to bring it out in them.

Another interesting point made was that empathy can be faked for a time and that one of the things we do when we pick people in leadership roles is related to facial symmetry. Added to the ability to mimic empathy and agreeableness it means if you are a good actor with a reasonably symmetric face you get a chance at leadership. I think we cal all think of prominent leaders both in business and politics who fit that description. So we get the leaders we deserve both in business and in politics. 

The question is, why aren’t there more good, agreeable and empathetic people in leadership roles.

I think the problem is that we have a current system where everything depends on short sound bites with emotive words or on finding ways to ensure meeting outcomes and bullying if necessary.  If that grabs people’s attention then a person seeking leadership roles, again especially in politics, has a good chance of gaining such a role.

There seems to be a flaw here.  It would appear to me that people who are good, agreeable and have empathy often find leadership in their own small ways rather than going for business and political leadership mainly because those roles require a great deal of compromise and being able to ignore one group over another – empathy would only get in the way.  And Oh Dear if you have a face that isn’t symmetrical.

I think it useful to research leadership.  I have had the privilege of working for people who were good leaders at the I knew them.  A few fell by the wayside of political expediency, some quit because they were not prepared to compromise (mostly women) and only one I can think of remained determined to move his organisation toward honest management.  His skill is that he is an excellent negotiator who recognises that no two people are the same and there are many ways to get to an outcome.  He encourages creativity and is able to make the hard decisions when needed.  Funnily enough he is reasonably good looking so symmetry is there.

Other people with the potential to be good leaders never get the opportunity because they were too nice.

So an article that ends with the hope that there will be more businesses with the Google philosophy of making money without doing evil.  To attract good leaders we need to consider the environment in which business is currently done.  The cut-throat culture of business and politics, and the people who thrive there, needs to be considered.

I have no idea how, without the total commitment of the world media who themselves are cut-throat people, the situation can be remedied in the long term. It is nice to think research may help but while the environment rewards selfish behaviour, it is hard to believe there will be change any time soon.

And yes, I know that in IT things are a little different.  Maybe with the maturing of new technically savvy generations who thrive on social networks things might change.

Fingers crossed!