Bill Clinton is often described as having great ability for making people believe that he understood how they felt. His expression of empathy in addressing questions during the 1992 presidential debate scored him significant points over George H.W. Bush because he made people believe that he understood them, their problems and their hardships; Bush did not. Clinton’s use of empathy helped him have foreign policy success in Northern Ireland, and helped him successfully address families and citizens after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. However, Clinton is generally not heralded as highly as Lincoln in his use of empathy because Clinton’s tears and other emotional gestures often made people uncomfortable and they have often been questioned as real or fake given his dishonesty in other aspects of his life.
George W. Bush’s presidential leadership is generally labeled strong and decisive more so than empathetic. Bush is often said to have missed or passed on opportunities to show a softer side of himself. To many this change in leadership style from Clinton was drastic. During his presidency, Bush dealt with the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the flooding of the Midwest in 2008. Bush’s statements after Sept. 11 are considered to have exhibited toughness and strong presidential leadership rather than empathy; his actions and statements in response to Katrina caused his empathy approval rating to drop; however, his actions in response to the 2008 flooding and his statements in Cedar Rapids, IA show significant displays of empathy, suggesting that he recognized the importance of empathy and the criticisms received during Katrina.
Apply Them Yourself
It is not necessary for you to be an aspiring president of the United States usiness to make use of your listening and empathy skills! You do have to be conscious of and tuned into the situation though. We said before that being a good listener is necessary for being an empathetic leader. If you truly want to earn points with your employees and others, then pay attention to them, get to know them, take an interest in them. Listen to them when they talk to you.
Empathy in some regards can be viewed as kindness. In chapter five of his book, Powell talks about empathy and kindness. He provides a quote from a sermon he heard: “Always show more kindness than seems necessary, because the person receiving it needs it more than you will ever know.” Powell gives a wonderful example of the difference that kindness and empathy can make based on what he learned from talking to the employees in his office parking garage. This particular garage had to pack cars in, stacking them one behind another making a clear order to the exiting of cars at the end of the day: cars parked farther in could not leave until the lead cars did. Powell asked the attendants how they decided when the cars arrived in the morning who ended up getting parked so they were first, second and so on to get out. The attendants smiled and explained that if the driver spoke to them with something like “good morning” or “how are you” and smiled or something similar, then they were at the front to get out, but if a person did not look at them or acknowledge their existence, then they were likely to be last or near last to get out. This is a great example of how just a little bit of kindness means more to the person receiving it than you might realize, and is also a great example of how a very costless act of kindness can make a big difference for not only the recipient but also to you as the provider, and to your business. Powell says, “Kindness is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of confidence. If you have developed a reputation for kindness and consideration, then even the most unpleasant decisions will go down easier because everyone will understand why you are doing what you are doing. They will realize that your decision must be necessary, and is not arbitrary or without empathy.” There is that key word again — empathy.
There may be no more fun of a place to see genuine exhibitions of empathy than in the dugout of a 7- or 8-year-old boy’s baseball team. As parents and coaches, we are leaders of our children and we generally hope that they are paying attention to what we say and to at least some of what we do. Watch what happens when your highest percentage hitter, the only kid who has not struck out all season, strikes out for the first time in the season during the second to last game of the season, and then he strikes out two more times in the same game. Every time, every kid in the dugout is there to greet him, pat him on the back, and show him that they know how he feels. If it were only that easy for us as leaders and managers to be genuine and to show others that we have an interest in them, in their state of mind and in their performance as it is for young boys on a baseball team, then maybe we would all perform better, be happier, and be “better” colleagues, co-workers, and bosses. And, maybe we too could come out at the final game of the season — the championship game — our next important meeting or interaction —and as an individual hit two homeruns, as a team hit four homeruns and have zero team members strike out, and get that big win! Just maybe ... Listen, Empathize, Act. Try it. What do you have to lose? It could be the key to your improving your success as a leader!