A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
September 16th, 2012 by William

The Key to Empathy and Great Leadership

In the book A First Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illness, (© 2011), Nassir Ghaemi provides another good read along the lines of what makes for good leadership. In my book I talk about empathy being one of the key virtues all servant leaders have in common and it’s what’s lacking in the typical sociopathic manager. Ghaemi’s book validates my theorem. The author details some of the world’s greatest leaders and what they all have in common.

The book starts with an analysis of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman of the Union Army in the American Civil War and works up to modern times taking a close look at Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Gandhi, John Kennedy, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. His premise is that all the greatest leaders had one thing in common; they all had some history of mental illness, specifically depression. And depression brings out one of the single most important traits to being a successful leader; empathy.

Ghaemi’s premise that’s relevant here is; “Depression reveals the truth of empathy, and empathy, in turn, engenders unexpected powers of leadership.”

This puts a new light on depression. Depression and empathy go hand-in-hand. Since most depressed people show a tendency toward cynicism, I’ll take the liberty to say the terms become almost interchangeable. In a way they are one and the same because being cynical−having the ability to look around you and see the absurdity and incivility in everyday life and in business−and seeing things as they really are could certainly lead to depression.

Cynical people are able to cut through the perceptions or wishful thinking about how they would like the world to be and see things as they really are. They are not caught up in the ‘positive illusion syndrome’ that most people have towards themselves and their environment. Positive illusion is the unrealistic attitude that causes people to inflate the assessment of their own abilities, possess unrealistic optimism about the future and suffer an illusion of control over the environment and those around them. Depressed and cynical people aren’t fooled by the positive illusion syndrome.

In a nutshell, Ghaemi postulates that this ability of seeing through bullshit perceptions often leads to depression, which in turn leads to a heightened sense of empathy which in turn can lead to great leadership.

So if you believe that you have that “amazing grasp for the obvious” that seems to be missing in all those around you and you can see reality for what it really is remember; you just may be on the path to being a great leader. However, the problem in modern business is that anyone who exhibits even the slightest trace of cynicism is chastised and ridiculed out of the organization. Maybe the modern work environment could actually be a more “realistic” place if more cynical people where praised and given a chance to rise into leadership positions.


2 Responses to “The Key to Empathy and Great Leadership”
  1. Patty Petty says

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  2. Basilia Furrer says

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