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.

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Building a Culture of Safety

When I think back over the many communities I’ve been part of over the years — whether at work, as a volunteer, or in a church — those that were most vibrant had many things in common. They had leadership that was engaging, they had regular gatherings, and they were clear about who they served. As I’ve grown into my own concepts of leadership, I have come to recognize that one of the largest (and most hidden) things they had in common was a dedication to cultural safety. Letting people come as they are, and honoring that, was foundational to how they operated.

Safety can mean different things to different people, though, so here’s a quick overview of how I see it.

Types of Safety

  • Physical Safety – The ability to remain free from bodily harm. For my current work in the WordPress project, this mostly comes up in relation to in-person events.
  • Psychological Safety – The ability to express yourself freely. This comes up in all of the community’s communication channels, from Slack and team blogs to twitter and events.
  • Social Safety – The ability be your whole self among others. This, naturally, comes up in all of our spaces both in-person and on-line.
  • Moral Safety – The ability to reconcile your work with your morals. This comes up mostly with volunteers in WordPress.

Though I’m sure this isn’t a comprehensive list, I do feel that these four kinds of safety line right up with some basic needs of healthy modern communities: personal safety, open communication, inclusivity, and aligned values.

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Dumpling Parties

My friends and I got together to chat, assemble dumplings, and watch Crazy Rich Asians.

According to our vague recollection, we think it’s been 8 years since we last did this and we loved every second of it. Even when we were using some questionable folding techniques.

My Leadership Philosophy

For no fewer than three years, my twitter bio has included the statement “I’m bad at writing recipes, great at cooking the food.” When I set out to define my leadership philosophy, I didn’t realize how true that statement would be.

I’ve been guiding and advising future leaders for many years, as a mentor and overall advocate, and my advice hasn’t changed much in that time. My concept of good leadership is informed by being a woman in a male-dominated field, a person of color in a primarily white-dominated world, and a general faith in the power of a good-hearted group of people.

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To All Women in Tech*

There are many “right ways” to be a woman in tech, and I hope that people have learned to welcome you with open arms. But at the same time, I worry that some women may not feel brave enough to ask if they are welcome.

I have something subversive to share with you.

I once felt that to be a woman in a male-dominated field (that’s just existing, not even excelling) you had to be as un-female as possible. I had this suspicion in the back of my mind that not allowing women to express themselves as women (but then also claiming them as part of your diverse workforce) — I had this suspicion that it was a lie.

Then I had two great chats with two great women, and I’m going to share their wisdom forever. And I’m writing it here so that you can, too.

  1. Helen 侯-Sandí and I were at a WordCamp afterparty and wearing very fancy dresses. I told her I felt self-conscious because “it was too feminine” (it wasn’t) and her response was “Women have boobs. If we want women in technology, men will have to learn that boobs** aren’t what keep people from being developers.”
  2. I told my sister I was having a heckuva time choosing the color of my laptop. I was stuck on “If I get a pink one, will anyone take me seriously?” and also “Should I be working to dignify WordPress overall” (by getting a dark grey laptop? idk). And she said to me “Anyone who will choose not to take you seriously because your laptop is pink was already not going to take you seriously. Get a pink laptop and remind them that women are leaders, too.”

That is when I saw through some distracting self-perpetuating nonsense:

  • Women, do not shame other women for being too feminine.
  • Women, do not shame other women for being too masculine.
  • Women, do not shame others for not fitting your idea of who they should be.

It’s hard enough out here trying to smash this towering patriarchy. Don’t hamstring everyone from within. Get your sister-phoenixes and get the heck ready to rise.

*Tech and medicine and any other male-dominated field out there.
**The use of the word “boobs” isn’t a vocabulary choice that you would associate with my blog, and especially not in a post labeled “leadership”. However, I felt that given Helen’s notoriety, no one would believe me if I pretended that the word choice was anything but that.

Unlucky in Travel

I was at dinner with friends recently and, during the course of our mutual catching up, was told that I have the most spectacular stories. We’re all travelers in that group, both for work and for pleasure, so the fact that I seem to have the most unusual experiences of all of us is notable.

Here are the most memorable circumstances, occurrences, and happenstances from the past year or so:

  • I told a 20-something man to stop verbally berating an older woman who was struggling to lift her luggage. He looked as though he might strike me, and for a moment I was worried he would. He did not.
  • A ticketing agent argued with me about my name for 10 minutes. She called a “Joseph Haden Chomphosy” to the desk, and I was sure it was my name but had gotten cut-off. We resolved it with me saying “If you think that somewhere on the planet, there is both a Joseph AND a Josepha with my last name and they both just happen to be in this building at the same time, you have a lot more faith than I do.”
  • A passenger had a panic attack in the door of the aircraft and her service dog got loose and wandered around the cockpit.
  • I flew out of an airport that was so small it hadn’t started taking electronic tickets yet. To this day I am not sure how they managed to get me on the plane, because it wasn’t with a paper ticket.
  • I had a long conversation about the educational system and how it doesn’t properly account for populations that suffer from systemic inequality.
  • On an entirely different flight, I had a long conversation about racism, college application processes, and real estate.
  • Three times I have practiced an upcoming presentation on random strangers (because our flights were delayed).
  • I was sent through security three times in 15 minutes at the same airport. They tested the same bottle every time even though it had been marked by them already.
  • I have been transported by random, non-taxi cars by two separate travel companions and have lived to tell the tale.
  • Twice I have shown up to an airport, ticket in hand, and been told that I am not a ticketed passenger.

And I didn’t even travel that much last year.

I was recently told by an absolutely brilliant woman that the best place for observational research is an airport, because that’s when people are their most honest selves. But if I believed what airports have to say about me, you’d think I was the unluckiest traveler around. 🙂

The Trouble With Following Your Passion 

As a high school student, I was regularly told to follow my passion. It’s the advice many teens are given specifically related to career aspirations, elective selection, and future college applications. Find what you’re passionate about and focus on that. It’s a trope that lines up beautifully with “love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life”.

As I’ve progressed in my career, and taken on mentorship of those who will come after me, I’ve learned how perilous that advice can be.

Unknown Unknowns

When you receive the advice to follow your passion early in your life or your career, you have so many things you haven’t encountered yet. In my case, I was passionate about music. In part, I was passionate about it because I naturally excelled at music and I greatly disliked doing things I was bad at.

I focused intently on music with the ultimate end goal of “being famous*” since that’s what most musicians we know of are: famous. I didn’t realize that there were other parts of music that we going to be more appealing to me. Things like learning how to work in an ensemble, and how to guide an ensemble. Or the semantic language of music and its deep ties to math.

Passion Paradox

And while we’re on the subject of things we’re naturally good at, let’s talk about what makes you passionate. In order to enjoy a task, it’s important to have some level of mastery. So few people find joy in being bad at stuff (which is separate from enjoying new experiences). When we tell inexperienced people to follow their passions, we run the risk of cutting off the opportunity to grow their skills.

Consider lexicography.

This is one of those jobs that would make absolute sense for someone with a voracious love of reading, writing, and the ever-evolving nature of language. You might not suggest to any teen who loved reading that they “pursue professional reading” since there just aren’t that many job opportunities. Exposure to related work and fields is paramount to discovering those nuanced parts of what drives a passion.

Network Disadvantage

Not that this suggestion is perfect. I am aware that exposing your student to a broad spectrum of vocations isn’t possible for everyone. Take Your Child to Work Day gives them insight into your work world, which is of course helpful. Having a network that helps or encourages internships or job-shadowing is definitely a matter of privilege.

My best suggestion for broadening your knowledge without a network is to get a mentor. In my limited experience, it’s not been hard to get someone who is willing to mentor you. What is hard is being easy to mentor (and making the best use of everyone’s time).

Examined Pursuits

As with so many things, my recommendations boil down to “going in with your eyes open”. If you want to be famous, and you’ve learned all the many ways you can be in an industry without being the improbable star, yet still want to strive toward stardom then great. You have every right and you’re probably going to be amazing!

Just make sure that you take the time to know more about the entire landscape before you start.

* I have not, in case you missed it, gone on to be a famous musician. I work in technology.