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Exploring The Intersection Of Empathy And Leadership

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - SEPTEMBER 01:  (EDITORS NOTE: This image was shot with a fisheye lens.) Professor of physics and astronomy Dr. Jason Steffen teaches a remote Physics for Scientists and Engineers course from his office at UNLV amid the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) on September 1, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. To lower the number of people on campus to allow for social distancing because of the pandemic, the university moved fall 2020 courses with more than 50 students, about 80 percent of its classes, to remote instruction, with 20 percent of courses held in-person or hybrid. UNLV is only using large classrooms with spaced out seating and under 50 percent capacity for in-person classes, which are now staggered to reduce density on the campus.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Professor of physics and astronomy Dr. Jason Steffen teaches a remote Physics for Scientists and Engineers course from his office at UNLV amid the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) on September 1, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

What makes a good leader? Is it an ability to make difficult decisions that others can’t or don’t want to? Is it being able to relate to the needs and desires of your employees/followers/subordinates so as to maintain good morale among the rank and file and promote productivity?

What makes a good leader? Is it an ability to make difficult decisions that others can’t or don’t want to? Is it being able to relate to the needs and desires of your employees/followers/subordinates so as to maintain good morale among the rank and file and promote productivity? Is it an innate ability to connect emotionally with others?

All of these questions relate to the connection between empathy and leadership, and how they inform one another. This was most notably on display during a recent pep rally following the general election earlier this month where the Biden campaign projected “The People Have Chosen Empathy” on large video boards behind the podium where President-elect Biden was set to speak that day.

As Wall Street Journal writer Sam Walker quips in his recent piece “Joe Biden Promises Empathy, but That’s a Difficult Way to Lead,” “it would be quite something if the next occupant of the White House was a personality trait.” But the stark change in leadership styles from President Trump to President-elect Biden has brought the discussion of empathy in leadership roles back to the forefront.

It’s not a stretch to say that most people would say empathy is an overall good trait for humanity, but that’s not to say it doesn’t come with its risks. Just as empathy can drive a person to do something heroic like running into a burning building to save a child, it can also push a person to lash out or act without thinking, potentially harming others in the process.

Today on AirTalk, we’ll look at how empathy informs leadership at the highest levels and what research suggests about the connection between empathy and good or bad leadership.

Guests:

Sam Walker, leadership columnist for The Wall Street Journal whose latest article is “Joe Biden Promises Empathy, but That’s a Difficult Way to Lead”; he tweets

Denise Cummins, adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder, elected fellow of the Association for Psychological Science and author of several books -- her latest is “Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence The Way We Think” (Cambridge University Press, 2012)

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