Leadingwith empathy, humility and dialogue

In uncertain times, leaders require deeperconversations andempathetic listening--three times more than speech-making.


 (*The writer is an author and corporate advisor. He is a Distinguished Professor of IIT Kharagpur. He was a Director of Tata Sons and a Vice Chairman of Hindustan Unilever).

Email: rgopal@themindworks.me

In uncertain times, leaders require deeperconversations andempathetic listening–three times more than speech-making.

According to Persian poet, Rumi, fear is the non-acceptance of uncertainty and fearisthe gateway to adventure.

Uncertainty demands that leaders devolve power and theunleash mechanisms for consultation and empowerment. Enquire about the secret sauce of Rajendra Bhatt (DM, Bhilwara) or KK Shailaja (Kerala Health Minister), twounderstated heroes of the Covid crisis.

The 1918 pandemic is erroneously termed ‘Spanish’ flu, because the Spanish media highlighted the problem, whenmedia elsewhere faced wartime restrictions. Dan Reiter and Allan Stam have written a persuasive articlein ForeignAffairs, that in 170 years (1816-1987), democracies won three quarters of their wars, while non-democracies won less than half of their wars. Some evidence that democracy, free media and devolution do work.

About coronavirus, Europe began with a blame game among nations, but a German court’s challenge to the EU’s Court of Justice has created a constitutional crisis.Healthy democracies(Taiwan and South Korea) as well as women-led nations (Germany, New Zealand, Finland) appear to have fared better than machismodictatorships (Iran, Russia and China).The reader may consider how to position nations with centralizing leaders—America, Britain, Brazil. Alsofigure out where Bharat belongs.

A desirabletraitfor strongmenis to engage inreal conversationsand genuine listening—recommended dosage of three times empathetic listeningversus speech-making. I share two lessonsfor anyleadership team.

  1. Listen empathetically to people who have less power than the leaders–it far outweighs leadership blah.
  2. Don’t overpromise, act SMART: specific-measurable-achievable-relevant-time bound action proposals.

Listen empathetically: Top teams spend their life climbing up the grease pole, but they must get off their perch periodically. I recall HUL chairmen exemplarily interacting with employees and business associates at the front-line; folklore abounds among HUL alumni about chairmen’s field visits, when they would listen andseek out field perceptions of problems and solutions.Such meetings, beingoutside of cloistered offices, leadersdevote, and are seen to devote, full attention to the front line–the front line feels heard and empathized with. Public leaders do so by meeting common folks. Recall how Ms Gandhi, who was out of power, was the first politician to visit Belchi, Bihar to meet the victims of horrendous atrocities on Dalits in 1977.

Too often, top teams are surrounded by committed acolytes rather than constructive dissenters.Active empathy facilitates deep connections and meaningful collaboration. Empathy is a skill that is best nurtured by keeping one’s agenda aside and seeking to understand the world from the other’s perspective. In uncertain times, empathy greatly helpsinstitutions to survive and thrive. Recall the hugely empathetic and humane leadership at Tata Steel and Indian Hotels (Taj) during the mayhem following a Jamshedpur fire (1989) and the terrorist attack (2008). Both were exemplary for empathy and humility. In 1964, PM Lal Bahadur Shastri insisted with Dr Kurien that he would stay overnight as a house guest of a Gujarat farmer to observe how the Amul success was being achieved—and, incognito, at that.

Leaders come through as endearingly transparent and even vulnerable in such empathetic contexts, greatly augmenting their connect with people.

Don’t overpromise: To some extent, leaders do sell dreams to their followers, but this should not become a litany of unfulfilled promises. Fictions motivate people to cooperate through lulling narrations of magical stories, for example, Pharaohs are real Gods, not mere divine representatives or Communism creates paradise.  Indian citizens have enthusiastically believed in the fables they heard but, from their perspective, they await to see the benefits—like correcting all the errors of the pastwithin ten years,unearthingblack money through scrapping currency notes, electricity nirvana through a never-before UDAY scheme, conquering Covid in fewer daysthan the Pandavastookto win theMahabharata war, and becoming global exemplarson how to respond to Covid. In contrast and as a positive example, think about the delivery of results of Swachh Bharat or cooking gas to poor sections. What is important is the results that the follower is led to expect rather than the promise of the leaders.

Leaders need to be realistic about actions, which should be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time targeted. SMART approach requires collaboration, openness and reaching out, otherwise you get outcomes like the current plight of informal workers (not migrants).

Among any leadership team’s multiple tasks during crises, empathy, humility and dialogue count among the most endearing.