I have written recently about reasons executives derail. The following story is an illustration of one of the reasons why this happens so frequently. They simply lose touch.
On one occasion I was called in by a senior executive to help her leadership team. I had been working with her team on several leadership development programs for her senior leadership team over the years, but this year she said we needed a different approach. She was concerned that this group of 30-35 high performing executives, from senior directors to vice presidents, had lost touch with the hundreds of employees they were charged with leading. They had become so concerned about their projects and their goals that they were not taking the time to develop people, were firing people too quickly without giving them much of an opportunity to change or turn things around. She was concerned that the culture, which was such a big part of their company, would be perceived as a sham if they didn’t turn this around.
Some of these leaders grew up in fairly good socioeconomic conditions and had never really experienced what it meant to live from paycheck to paycheck as was the case for many of their employees. Others who grew up through the ranks and remember well what it was like to be at the bottom of the food chain in a company. But even then, the tendency is for leadership to erode empathy. And, according to Professor Kelton of Berkley, the more power a leader gets, the more their empathy erodes, confirming Lord Acton’s maxim, Power tends to Corrupt and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely. For more information on this, read my post Exceptional Leaders and The Paradox of Power.
So, how do you go about instilling empathy in a group of high energy, goal driven, powerful, high income senior leaders? I pitched an idea to the senior executive that was a little out of the box, and took it back to our team to develop an experience that would bring these leaders back down to earth where most of the world they manage lived every day. It was essential that they be capable of reflecting on the lives of the people impacted by their daily decisions.
We took this group on a full-day field trip, if you will, to a nearby metropolitan area. They were divided up into small groups, each with particular assignments and a pittance of a budget for their lunch. In essence all three of them would have to eat on less than what one of them usually spent on their lunch. They began to gritch and groan at the prospects. We then brought them back together to hear anonymous recorded testimonies from their employees describing their lives. They heard employees tell about living from paycheck to paycheck, from single moms who knew exactly how many trips they could make on a tank of gas, and how they budget their money for groceries and bills, from those who were living in situations where domestic violence was an imminent threat, and so on and so on. These leaders were shocked that these stories were the true life stories of the people who worked for them. They also heard from people about how important their job was to them, and how they worked hard to stay focused and to prevent these personal issues from interfering with their performance.
These executives ended their day at a local soup kitchen where they were assigned to serve food and have a meal with the guests. Their assignment was simply to get to know the guests. This was a very uncomfortable assignment for many of these executives. Most had never talked to a homeless person. Many had preconceived ideas about them, all of which were shattered that evening. I’ll never forget the one executive telling me that what surprised him most is the one guest of the soup kitchen who told him that he too had once been an senior manager in his company, but fell on hard times and had not been able to find his way out.
The leadership session ended with a facilitated discussion about how leadership could look in their area of responsibility. These leaders went back with a different kind of appreciation for their people, their capabilities and their courage. They went back with a little more patience than before. They went back with new perspectives and greater empathy toward people whose livelihoods were in their hands. They were still charged with making decisions and achieving results. They just learned that they can get this done in a little different way.