Scaling Empathy: How to Empathize with the Whole

I spent a day at our orientation teaching an entire class of incoming MBAs. A day later I was in a different part of the country leading a business school faculty through their yearly one day retreat. I taught both groups the fundamental state of leadership. I came to the third question in the framework, “Am I other focused.”

I explained the power of empathy. Then I told the story of great public school teacher who learned to practice empathy for each of her students. When she first started she pointed out that “every child is unique” and “you have to learn the needs and interests of each one.” This took considerable effort and turned her into a good teacher. As she continued to grow she made a discovery and moved to “the next level.” She said, “I learned they are all the same. No matter what they say or do, every one of them wants to succeed, wants to be respected, and wants to be loved. When you break this code you can teach any one.”

In moving to a higher level of mastery she had learned to “scale” empathy. She discovered how to practice empathy for the whole. Once she did so her influence skyrocketed.

Trying to help the two groups understand the story, I said something to both groups that I have not said before. In essence it went like this; “This morning I spent a lot of time preparing to be with you. I did not spend much of the time on content. Instead I spent the time preparing me. I put myself into a state of love for you.”

“Now you are saying, ‘That is ridiculous, you have never even seen me and you do not even know who I am. You cannot possible love me.”

“You are wrong. I spent time with you without ever meeting you. I was empathizing with the whole. I asked myself these questions; who are they? What you are they excited about?   What do they fear? What are their deepest interests and highest needs? Then I determined to shape everything I did to the answers.”

“Doing this work was much more important than organizing my content. You see I am not interested in being an expert who distributes information. I live to inspire positive change. To do that, I have to have your trust. For you to trust me, you have to feel my genuine concern. When I am addressing the deepest needs and interests of the whole you feel it. You know I am giving what you usually do not get, content wrapped in love.”

In both cases people were really listening. They were hearing an unusual message that made sense. Great influence is based on the ability to love. Love can be elevated. It can be moved from a focus on the one to a focus on the whole. When it is elevated, the higher needs of each individual can be touched simultaneously. Trust goes up and human learning is accelerated. The probability of change increases.


When I have consciously practiced empathy for a person, what happened?

When I have consciously practiced empathy for the whole, what happened?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


On Being Unique

The key to getting into the fundamental state of leadership is not the analysis of techniques and practices. Developing leaders is not about getting them to imitate the thinking and behavior of other people who have been successful. It is about attracting people to the decision to enter the unique state from which their own great thinking and great behaviors emanate. This happens when an individual chooses to become more purpose-centered, internally directed, other-focused, and externally open. It is an act of courage toward which people must be attracted.

We attract others into the fundamental state of leadership not by imitation but by becoming unique. We increase our uniqueness by pursuing ever-increasing integrity. As we increase our integrity, we can align ourselves with the uniqueness of the emerging reality in which we live. Our courage then invites others to do the same. (Quinn, Building the Bridge as You Walk on it: pg. 321).


When have I been excellent?

When has my courage invited others to excellence?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

4 Questions that will Change Your Life: The Fundamental State of Leadership

We had a wonderful group of executives attend a program in Executive Education.  They were hungry to get better.  We organized the entire week around learning to enter the fundamental state of leadership.   One does this by answering four questions that are designed to help you move yourself and others from the normal, reactive state to the elevated, proactive state.  The questions are:

  • What result do I want to create?
  • Am I internally directed?
  • Am I other focused?
  • Am I externally open?

They loved the materials that were presented and, at every opportunity, they looked to apply them.  At the end of the day on Thursday, I gave them a role-play. I said, “On Monday you get on the elevator and the CEO is standing there.  To your shock, he says, “you just spent a week in Michigan.  That cost us a lot of money.  What did we get for it?”

The first answer was, “It was really good, and I learned a lot.”  This seemed to make sense to everyone.  I asked them to deeply analyze if the response was reactive or proactive.  Everyone was seeing the experience as a problem to be solved (How do I not upset the CEO and get off the elevator as soon as possible?).  Naturally, no one saw it as an opportunity to further his or her highest purpose and transform the organization.  I told them that thirty seconds on an elevator with the CEO is a chance to change the world.

We went back to the four questions they could use to elevate themselves.  Each group had time to prepare one person to stand up and role-play with me.  The other three groups were assigned to score each performance on a one to ten scale.  I also told them that when I, the CEO, asked them the above question, their first sentence had to be a question, not a statement.  I repeated this three times.

When the time came I asked the first person to stand.  He did not respond with a question.  He made an intellectual statement that did not engage me.  The other three groups gave him a score of three and everyone laughed, including him.  I continued.  Three out of four groups started with a statement not a question.  Each group received a three.  One group asked a great question, and I, the CEO, was engaged, so I asked a question back and the person did not know what to say.  The other groups, nevertheless, gave that group a seven.  Just their question gave them a higher score than the other groups.

I asked what they learned.  They told me they learned that it was hard to be proactive.  Then someone spoke up and said, “What would you do?”

I had one of them ask me the question.  I responded, “Why did you spend all that money on me, what result did you want to create?  My questioner stumbled and finally said, “To make you a better a leader?”  I said, “That is an amazing commitment on your part, thank you.   You must really care about the development of the people in this company.  It turns out that I have developed an idea on how to profoundly increase the leadership capacity of every executive in the company, quickly and efficiently.  I am wondering if you would be interested in talking about how to do that?”

The other person said, “Yes, come to my office for lunch on Wednesday.”

The room was frozen.  It was an extraordinary teaching moment.  I could see their minds spinning.  I asked what they learned.  There was an outpouring of insights.  Someone finally said, “Wow, we could make a difference.”  The whole week seemed to crystallize.

We ended the session and I was about to walk out.  A participant stopped me.  The person was in tears.  The tears increased as the participant told of a disastrous previous exchange with a senior authority figure.  The person then described an epiphany, “These last twenty minutes are twenty of most important minutes I have ever spent.  If I had understood what I understand right now, last week’s conversation would not have been a disaster, it would have had an incredibly positive outcome.”  The person was conveying gratitude. When we understand the four questions from this class, and how to use them, we immediately become more effective leaders. We can change the world.

Presencing the Future

When I teach executives how to move into the fundamental state of leadership, I often suggest that they must come to embrace the future and embody the vision that they seek to realize. Many find this idea hard to understand. In the book, Leading from the Emerging Future, Scharmer and Kaufer write that to bring possibility to reality, leaders must make a shift from a conventional “ego perspective” to a nonconventional “eco perspective.”

“This inner shift, from fighting the old to sensing and presencing an emerging future possibility, is at the core of all deep leadership work today. It’s a shift that requires us to expand our thinking from the head to the heart. It is a shift from an ego system awareness that cares about the well being of oneself to an eco-system awareness that cares about the well being of all, including oneself. When operating with eco- system awareness, we are driven by the concerns and intentions of our emerging or essential self— that is, by a concern that is informed by the well-being of the whole.”

The authors go on to propose that judgments must be suspended and attention refocused. One must let go of the past and embrace the future that is trying to emerge through us. This is what they mean by “presencing” the future. We must become a present manifestation of the future that is trying to unfold. They argue that this is, perhaps, the most important of all leadership capacities.”

In short, I believe that we all tend to live in a comfort centered, externally driven, self-focused and internally closed state. We can choose to live in a purpose centered, internally driven, other focused and externally open state in which we co-create the emerging future with others. As we do, we begin to see the future, we commit to it and we begin to live from it. We become a living symbol of what we are trying to bring about.