Sunday, April 20, 2008

When Empathy Can Get You Into Trouble: The Thin Edge of the Wedge for Barack Obama

Emotional intelligence refers to an ability to recognize the meanings of emotions and their relationships, and to reason and problem-solve on the basis of them…it is the capacity to perceive emotions, assimilate emotion-related feelings, understand the information of these emotions, and manage them.

---Mayer, et al

We all know what it’s like to grieve for a loved one. So, when someone out of the goodness of his heart says to us, “I know how you feel”, the first reaction is to say, “No you don’t”. It’s presumptuous for another to claim she can step into our shoes and experience our pain. Yet, we hesitate to verbally reject that person’s kindness because he ‘meant well’. It’s quite a dilemma for both of us.

In this vein, Barack Obama fell into the trap of apparently feeling for another by naming it and igniting a firestorm of “No, you don’ts”. At a closed door fundraiser earlier this month in San Francisco, he remarked that working-class white voters in Pennsylvania towns and in the MidWest are “bitter because of job losses” and thus “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations”. Yes, that kind of thought process will get anyone into trouble! There are too many disconnects in the logic.

But, Obama wasn’t using logic. It was about empathy—an emotional connection to people’s frustrations due to the loss of good jobs in the globalized economy. He ‘meant well’ but he forgot that he really doesn’t know how others truly feel and think about their changing worlds.

With reference to Mayer’s definition of emotional intelligence, Mr. Obama perceived and assimilated the emotions. Where he skipped a beat was taking it upon himself to interpret the meanings of the emotions and translate them publicly into behaviours. He failed to balance emotions with evidence.

Using the grieving for a loved one example, we respond far better to someone’s empathy if we are asked: “What can I do for you right now”? Or, if that person simply listens to our present story and basically is a shoulder to cry on without judgment. The other takes cues from us first, as a good coach does. We also appreciate the little acts of kindness such as handwritten cards, homemade casseroles, etc., for all those visitors and generally a phone call here and there to see how we are doing. It’s at our pace and in our terms.

We look to our leaders to be good at connecting with us, not only to empathize with a particular situation but also to engage and motivate us for the long-term. Barack Obama’s faux pas illustrates that emotional intelligence does not mean “I know how you feel”. On the contrary, it means first and foremost searching for “How do you feel”?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Where Leadership and Golf Mastery Meet

Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything

---Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

Be master of mind rather than mastered by mind.

---Zen Proverb

All the significant battles are waged within the self.

---Zen Proverb

Life seeks order in a disorderly way.

---Margaret Wheatley, A Simpler Way

Every spring brings our collective sigh of relief that winter has past and fresh growth is upon us. With new surges of energy, we make new plans for the garden, our work and personal lives before the next transition.

As the seasons go, so do sports. In the spring, it’s the Masters Golf Tournament where we bear witness to incredible talent, the result of many years of hard work. We marvel at the ability of the golfers atop the leader board to scramble out of messes. We feel for them when things don’t work out.

The leader board and great leadership intersect in the “how” of getting there. When all is said and done, there are two key interdependent practices necessary for mastering anything, including golf:

Deliberate practice (Skill Power---improving technical skills/honing routines for “competition”)

Zen practice (Presence Power----taming/letting go of the ego, being in the present, improving and using mental agility for “competition”)

Both require disciplined goal-setting, rehearsing for thousands of hours to challenging scenarios, tracking results, reflecting on the results (learning what is working/not working) and based on the feedback to self and from trusted coaches, re-setting goals repeating the cycle of practice, etc.

What is “deliberate practice”?
Improving the skills you already have and extending the reach and range of your skills.

It encompasses focusing on tasks that are beyond your current level of competence and comfort. Not practicing in a vacuum but practicing to the challenging scenarios that confront and bedevil you in the work situation, or, in the case of golf, in tournament play.

By working at what you can’t do, you turn into the expert you want to become.

What is “Zen practice”?
Becoming free of the ego, by observing rather than reacting. Making peace with the present moment.

This is the area of “self-knowing” that repeatedly shows up in books and articles on leadership as well as golf. This is the ultimate source of effectiveness. But, the journey requires patience.

The ego is a “conditioned mind-pattern” or a thought. In its dysfunctional state, it thrives on reactivity---anger, frustration, impatience, etc., distracting us and interfering with our ability to enjoy and benefit strategically from the moment.

Only “presence” can free us of our egos. Ego implies unawareness. But the moment we become aware of the ego in us, it becomes weakened.

To become free of the ego is not really a big job but a very small one.
All you need to do is become aware of your thoughts and emotions---as they happen.

This is not really a ‘doing’ but an alert ‘seeing’….. When that shift happens, which is the shift from thinking to awareness, intelligence far greater than the ego’s cleverness begins to operate in your life. Emotions and even thoughts become depersonalized through awareness. Your “story” becomes of secondary importance. It no longer forms the basis of your identity (or controls your actions).

---Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth.

Just as we typically set goals and track them to improve our technical capabilities within our field of expertise, leadership progress also needs equal treatment, especially on the thoughts and emotions side. The “presence power” technique suggests an approach that is counter-intuitive yet well-known by those who meditate: observe but do nothing.

By doing less (not doing anything with our thoughts or emotions that are not helpful), we open up the space to become more. We become more of who we really are, that is, our incredible talent can shine through more because we are not caught up in our ego (self-conscious thoughts).

In our fast-paced world, the journey of self-awareness doesn’t fit. There is no way self-knowing can be hurried. It responds to what we make of “teachable moments” as they present themselves through the course of our work lives. Each new insight must be turned into a concrete application that, in turn, has to be fine-tuned through deliberate practice.

As in golf, leadership can be learned: “skill power” and “presence power”. For those who are passionate about the “game”, mastery is possible. It just takes time. Along the way, there is fun to be had!