Authored by Christiane Montuori on Sunday, January 9, 2011 at 2:22 PM | Add the first comment!
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This is John Boehner’s first week as Speaker of the US House of Representatives. As he will undoubtedly learn, exercising leadership as the head of a minority party is very different than being responsible for the House as a whole.
What are the qualities that make for a good Speaker, one who can pull together a gaggle of independent actors whose accountability, after all, is to the folks back home, not to Boehner or anyone inside the Beltway?
To me, the question is interesting not so much because of Boehner’s challenges, but because we can learn something about our own leadership by considering how Boehner can succeed.
During my time as a Member of the Massachusetts House, I served under Speaker Bob Quinn. His distinctive competence was that he knew all there was to know about every single Member: party, home town, margin of victory, marital stability, financial situation, what legislation was needed for re-election, and on and on. When he saw me walking down the corridor, even before we spoke a word, I had the sense that he knew what was in my head and my heart, even though we looked at the world very differently. He didn’t like my perspective very much, didn’t even understand it, but he knew what it was, and could describe it as well as I could. Because he was aware of my feelings, thoughts, beliefs, concerns, priorities, and ambitions, he was able to invariably strike the right note with me when trying to get me to take some course of action.
This skill I call “Thinking and Acting Politically”.
Whether you are talking about John Boehner or Bob Quinn or you or me, leadership is about going beyond the status quo, affecting outcomes, and helping to create a better world, however you define that. To exercise leadership successfully, you need to mobilize people and factions who have actively or passively resisted you, and whose engagement is necessary for achieving your purpose.
And in order to move them, you need to understand them, as Quinn did so well, on their own terms. You need to be able to “walk in their shoes” as the cliché goes.
Empathy is the word usually used to describe that process.
Empathy is a big industry. Google the word and you get 13,900,000 results. There’s a Center for Building a Culture of Empathy. The word is a special favorite of President Obama. If you Google “Obama empathy” there are over a million results. And there are online tests – a 20-question version and a 60-question version - you can self-administer that will tell you instantly how empathetic you are. (I was on the high end of the middle level on one and “too empathetic” on the other; they are pretty easy to game, if you are into that.) The Oxford Dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another [emphasis added].” It is very closely related to emotional intelligence, another hot subject in the psychobabble world. There’s a sales blog out there that treats them as synonyms. And there are lots of emotional intelligence online tests as well, including a 106-question monster which I waded through. That one used empathy as an indicator of high emotional intelligence.
Unfortunately, empathy doesn’t go far enough in describing what is required for skillfully exercising leadership. It is necessary but not enough on its own.
Empathy misses how and what others think, how they look at the world, what they value, and therefore how they will react to certain carrots or certain sticks. To exercise leadership well, you need to have empathy, sure, but the capacity to understand others’ view of reality particularly when it is radically different from your own is just as important.
I am trying to find or invent a word to describe this more cerebral complement to empathy. The best I have come up with so far is “alterdoxy” or “other belief”. If you come up with a better word, please let me know. There will be more about leadership and alterdoxy in my next post.