"Empathy," writes philosophy professor Jesse Prinz, "is not a major player when it comes to moral motivation."
David Brooks, who cites Prinz in a recent column in The New York Times, adds, "Empathy makes you more aware of other people's suffering, but it's not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action."
Empathy in leaders, however, can be problematic. Those who must make decisions about the fates of others must not dwell on the personal implications.
For example, managers who feel high degrees of empathy can have a tough time making people decisions about whom to promote and especially about whom to demote or dismiss. They allow the effect those decisions will have on the lives of those who do not get promoted or those who are terminated impact them. "Good guy" managers are especially vulnerable to manipulation by those who seek favor and know how to play the empathy card so the manager will take it easy on them.
A good-guy manager can be paralyzed into inaction and in doing so subjects the department to putting up with less than capable colleagues. Such managers hold these people to lower standards which means that everyone else must pick up the slack and work harder to cover for an incompetent or lazy coworker.
Effective leadership requires toughness. You need be able to make the hard choices, especially when it comes to doing what is right for the business. Failure to do so will not protect any one, in fact it may harm more people. That is, if you keep on underperformers you overwork good employees, which in turn undermines morale as well as encourages them to look elsewhere.
But you can use empathy to your favor. Good leaders I know can be tough when it comes to the business but their empathy kicks in afterward. Let me explain. Empathy by itself is inert, as the literature Brooks cites in his column, asserts. Leaders translate empathy into action when they act with compassion.
Business conditions may dictate trimming headcounts but compassionate leaders do it with dignity. They seek to provide options for individuals as well as severance. They also understand the toll that layoffs have on employees and the community. They engage their people in ways that will prevent future layoffs, perhaps even cutting pay (for themselves and others) as a means of saving jobs.
Total lack of empathy is not a positive. Nowhere is this more evident than with military commanders. During the First World War French generals relegated empathy to an extreme when they secluded themselves from the front lines so as not to see the trauma on life and limb they were subjecting their troops, the poilu. Such callousness on the part of commanders was a key factor in the French Army Mutinies of 1917.
Empathy is the ability to have a heart, but leadership is the attribute to act on that heart when it matters. "When I was young, I admired clever people," wrote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. "As I grew old, I came to admire kind people." Those we respect are those who translate kindness into actions that benefit others.