I am currently undertaking a Masters in Educational Management at the University of Melbourne and a recent assignment asked me to consider various leadership theories and look upon well-known leaders to assess their styles.
Whilst undertaking research into the successful leadership of the South African President, Nelson Mandela, it became apparent that empathy played an integral part of his leadership style. Contemplating this aroused an interest in the importance of empathy in educational leaders of today.
I completed an online assessment to analyse my own leadership style and upon completion, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my top strength was empathy. Now my mind really was alive, the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle were finally falling into place. Mandela had inspired me to think further about this intriguing trait and I was finding that I personally had an element of empathy in my personality and I wanted to analyse the connection to leadership.
It became apparent to me that empathy is much more than being compassionate or sensitive towards another and many of us claim to be empathic without truly understanding the meaning. School principals and executive leaders communicate and interact with a wide variety of people on a daily basis. Students, teachers, parents and the wider community make up a large percentage of their daily interactions and positive relationships are imperative. Does empathy make a difference to the success of our leaders? Can empathy be learnt? Is empathy an important trait in order to lead and influence the many people we encounter in education?
The research undertaken into the importance of empathy has led me to develop my own Model of Positive Empathy for Leaders. Several characteristics are commonly mentioned in the research into the importance of emotions and considering the feelings of others. There are six in particular for which I feel are a true indication of a harmonious culture.
Figure 1: Self Developed – Model of Positive Empathy for Leaders (Glenton 2015)
(Graphics constructed by K. McClintock 2015)
This model demonstrates that having empathy is not enough. Successful leaders should act positively upon this empathy in order to develop the six traits displayed. If a school leader does this, they will ultimately develop a harmonious culture. The six characteristics will now be explained further.
Transformational leaders empower their followers to feel that their contributions are valued. It is my belief that if we empower those who work with us, we will ultimately develop a positive culture.
If we can enable our staff to be motivated to be the best they can be and be passionate for their work, emotions are positive and staff feel content and that they are making a difference and will be open to new challenges. This creates a culture of optimism.
- Persuasion (to follow the shared vision)
Many marketing websites offer techniques on how to empathically communicate with customers to lure them in. It is my opinion that Mandela used the art of persuasion as one of his key leadership traits which ultimately assisted in his success.
Awakening describes the ability of a leader to enable their staff to have a clear understanding and belief of their vision and be inspired to act upon it.
Leaders who display empathy and act positively to improve the working conditions of their staff will ultimately develop a culture of trust. School leaders should build relationships inside the school community.
- High morale
Having high morale enables people to be encouraged and enthusiastic about their job which in turn encourages them to complete their job to the best of their ability.
If these six characteristics are fostered amongst staff, it is my belief that this seventh trait will automatically develop. A harmonious culture in the institution will, amongst other things, assist in increasing student outcomes which is the ultimate goal of a school leader.
If school leaders can truly understand how their staff and students feel, they can then take positive actions to improve their working conditions and ultimately achieve positive student outcomes.
The model proposed suggests an idea for leaders to consider when attempting to adjust the culture of their organisation or adapt their own leadership to becoming more transformational in their approach. It is apparent from the research undertaken that understanding the emotions of our teachers and students has a positive impact on performance. We must consider, however, that there are many influences on leadership and the most successful leaders adapt their style to suit the situation. I propose that by simply considering developing empathy as a lifelong skill, and positively acting on these emotions, can only assist a leader in becoming more influential and to be considered as someone who has positively impacted the lives of others.