Modern-Day Leadership: How Empathy Provides the Backbone to Creating our Future Leaders

Stories, know-how, and guidance from the experts in educating boys.

Modern-Day Leadership: How Empathy Provides the Backbone to Creating our Future Leaders
Ollie Rothmann '11

Modern-Day Leadership: How Empathy Provides the Backbone for Creating our Future Leaders

Many people perceive leaders to be representative figures who strictly dictate responsibilities to their 'inferiors.' In this day and age, it's all too common for leaders to be unfamiliar with the individuals working for them, and in some cases, those individuals have never even met the 'higher-ups.' Leaders today frequently become cloistered in their own silos, focused solely on themselves as the faces of companies, teams, or groups. This disconnected dynamic can cause miscommunications, distraught workers, and inefficient work output.

So, how should leaders do their jobs then? And, wait, what makes me the expert? Full disclosure: I am not an expert on leadership, and to that matter, I'm not sure anyone is. Fortunately, there are many prominent and proven leaders in our world today who possess different leadership ideologies that we can learn from. One such leader, whose progressive ideology transverses demographic divides, is retired Four-Star General, Stanley McChrystal of the United States Military.

General Stanley McChrystal served as the United States' Joint Special Operations Commander from 2003-2008 after which he was appointed to lead all forces in Afghanistan from 2009-2010. After retiring, he established the McChrystal Consultancy Group and joined several companies' board of directors including: JetBlue, Navistar, and Fiscal Note. He is also a Senior Fellow at Yale University, teaching a graduate course in leadership. He is the author of a New York Times Bestseller, Team of Teams: Rules of Engagement For a Complex World. Obviously, McChrystal's leadership rèsumè is formidable. 

The Three Pillars of Leadership

I like to call McChrystal’s leadership ideology, “modern-day leadership,” because it destroys the common perceptions of leadership that I describe above. The modern-day leadership ideology is constructed upon three main pillars of importance.


1. Empathy

“Leaders can let you fail, and yet not let you be a failure" (McChrystal, 2011). In order to be an effective leader, you must be able to place yourself in the position of those who you are leading. Why? So that you can establish a working relationship between yourself and those working with you, not for you. Leaders who don't take the time to relate to those working for them can't expect the group’s work output to be at its highest potential. It's human nature for people to work harder and smarter around people they know and can relate to. Therefore, a leader’s empathetic approach disqualifies the classic notions of leading by command, and instead gathers every individual together to establish a sense of shared purpose.

At Avon Old Farms School, a New England high school for boys, teachers are trained how to incorporate an empathetic learning environment into the heart of their curriculum. For example, the leaders of the English department provide each student with an opportunity to publicly succeed — or "fail" — during the yearly poetry competition. After memorizing a notable work of poetry, students deliver the content to their fellow classmates as part of the recitation contest.

Because teachers have attended seminars on how to create an atmosphere where boys can put themselves in one another's' shoes, students are more apt to be encouraging towards their fellow classmates. Kate Barzun, English teacher and college counselor, states, "As an English teacher, I strive to develop my boys' sense of empathy and appreciation for others' experiences. Literature provides the avenue, and I provide the guidance, but it is the all-boys classroom that provides the comfort in which to do that." There is a palpable freedom in an open and understanding single-sex academic environment that rings very true in events such as the poetry reading contest.

Not only are the leaders showing empathy to their students, but the students are in turn formulating a compassionate response to their peers. In essence, the students at Avon Old Farms are living out how to follow under leadership that cares for individual growth and are in turn displaying the same graces to members of their community.


2. Inversion of Expertise

In his 2011 TED Talk on leadership, General McChrystal describes the phenomenon that he calls the "inversion of expertise." Most leaders are expected to be adept in certain areas. However, who is to say that those working with the leader are not experts in their own right? Leaders need to stay reliable and genuine in our ever-changing economic, political, and technological society by consulting the expertise of those around them. McChrystal explains that leaders need to learn from those who they work with in order to strengthen their platform upon which they can be more effective leaders. This learning process also enables leaders to get involved with those on the “ground level,” thus cultivating these crucial relationships built upon trust.

When Avon Old Farms decided to add rugby as a new sports channel for students, seasoned rugby coach Matthew Golchin stepped in as the program leader. Although the school has raised up many notable professional athletes since its inception in 1927, this was the first time a rugby team has existed. Some of the new players on the team had played rugby on previous clubs and were able to work with Coach Golchin to develop a leadership platform based upon their prior rugby experiences.

An open space for students — or any person under the leadership of another — to be able to share what he or she knows is essential for a leader to thrive. When the leader shows respect for the skills and experience of followers, the leader is creating a synergistic environment that will inevitably lead to new and greater ideas for all involved. 


3. Trust

“I have learned that a leader isn’t good because they’re right. They’re good because they’re willing to learn and to trust” (McChrystal, 2011). A person's ability to lead sprouts from the relationships that he or she has developed with colleagues, classmates, or teammates. Relationships are the sinew of a team: the personal bonds hold the unit together. Thus, personal and trusting relationships are more important than ever. But, how is this mutual trust established? By focusing on the first two pillars of empathy and inversion of expertise, and then getting involved with those who form your team. Once the foundation of confidence is established, leaders must empower those they trust closest to the ground level, so that dignitaries can move with autonomy and interconnectedness between the different groups that they manage.

Organizations that utilize the leader/follower relationship as a means to incorporate institutional growth understand that holistic growth will ensue. For example, at Avon Old Farms, a natural relationship of trust is cultivated through the school's advisor and mentor programs. Teachers meet with advisees; student leaders meet with mentees. In the process, a cycle of trust develops between leaders and students.

When faculty and coaches listen to and trust their students, those students begin to feel solid in the power of their own voice. Ultimately, under a leadership that expects the best possible outcome from its followers, students can begin to understand their own future role in influencing others.


Key Takeaway

It doesn't matter if you're a CEO of a Fortune 500 Company, or the head dorm monitor of Brown House at Avon Old Farms, the CT private school for boys, General McChrystal’s leadership ideology transverses demographic divides. Developing trust, cultivating assurance, and empowering those who put their faith in you as a leader is crucial in managing people — after all, both leaders and their followers are working for a common purpose. By showing empathy, learning from your followers, and genuinely trusting, leaders grant their teams, groups, or companies with the desire to be productive, efficient, and happy.


About the Author


Avon Old Farms Class of 2011