Empathy vs Altruism in Modern Leadership

The concept of empathy is one that has become popular as a leadership ideal. We expect empathy from CEOs, ask designers to join empathy challenges, and tell people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Empathy is, at its simplest, knowing what someone else is going through. It’s often identified as a counterpart to sympathy and is seen as an important quality of modern leadership.

But setting empathy as a gold standard in leadership has its downfalls [1]. Empathetic leadership relies on personal experiences with situations that are atypical for you and assumes similar tolerance levels for discomfort. More importantly though, it assumes that experiencing something is the same as understanding.

Empathy in Leadership

The limitations that relying on empathy present in leadership can be boiled down into two broad categories: The Known Unknowns and the Unknown Unknowns.

Known Unknowns. We all have the luxury of the full depth of knowledge that comes with our own lived experiences. Which, of course, also means we have the distinct lack of knowledge any one else’s — so we can guess, but we simply won’t know for certain. If you are an able-bodied person, it’s very hard to imagine what it would be like if you weren’t able to see color, or were unable hear, or had limited mobility.

Unknown Unknowns. You don’t always know what could potentially cause discomfort in order to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes”. Take, for example, emoji and screen readers. In some instances, when a screen reader encounters an emoji it will read the emoji out loud. And we’re not talking “girl flipping hair” we’re talking “pink shirt girl flipping hair skin tone 3”. I only know this because I used to use emoji in my contact list on my phone and the voice assistant on it would read that out every time I asked it to call someone. I know only by coincidence.

So how do we, as leaders, adopt a method of considerate problem solving that looks outside of what solutions work for us/disabilities we can think of, and focus on solutions that seek to serve others wholeheartedly.

Altruism in Leadership

Most of the leading I currently do is in open source software, but I’ve been a volunteer for non-profit organizations for most of my life. In open source, the concept of “egoless contributions” is part of the basic understanding of how the work is done. The concept of altruism in leadership is generally referred to as Servant Leadership. It can be easily (though not completely) summed up as an inversion of traditional leadership methods. The primary goal in this type of leadership is to ensure that employees/volunteers/board members are equipped to do their best work, while remaining happy, healthy, and engaged.

Changing the idea of leadership from a single-locus of power to one that insists on serving the people you are leading is strange in our power-hungry, late-stage capitalism world.

It helps if you think of servant leadership as a symphony. The conductor is responsible for the overall artistic direction, but also has the responsibility to each instrumentalist to weed out bad pitches, provide clearly marked scores, and answer questions that come up. Conductors become famous when the orchestra shines, not when they conduct patterns perfectly.

Everyday Leadership

As with so many things in our world, there isn’t actually a single solution for all problems. Servant leadership naturally has flaws [2], and any leadership style will need to be nuanced and suited to the people involved. I have a few encouragements to help you be mindful in your everyday leadership practices.

  1. A capacity for empathy is incredibly valuable, it just can’t be the one and only thing you expect.
  2. Understand your own motivations. If power and fame is a primary goal, then maybe modern leadership isn’t for you.
  3. Ask for advice and be prepared to listen. All great leaders are surrounded by thoughtful advisors.
  4. Act humbly and think nobly. Lead with others in mind and make choices based on long-term outcomes over short-term gains.
  5. Become a student of your organization’s desire paths. Knowing how something wants to work is as important as knowing how it should work.

[1] This is not to be confused with the “tyranny of empathy” a concept that looks to undermine the value of seeing past oneself by portraying it as “the one with the most feelings wins”.

[2] There is a lack of gender parity in this style of leadership. Women are expected to lead this way to the point that their successes are often unseen, while men are often seen as visionaries for the same.