Great Leadership

Originally published in The Startup Couch, 3/18/16

Learn from great leaders. Not from Silicon Valley unicorn CEOs — but from Martin Luther King and Gandhi. They ignited people’s hearts to sacrifice for freedom.

What is great leadership? Understanding people’s deepest concerns, through empathy. That is, the ability to step into the shoes of another.

What about those “sociopathic,” yet successful, tech CEOs? Don’t be fooled. Steve Jobs, while known for harshness to employees, did have empathy. He created products that resonated on a personal level with the user.

How does one set hearts and minds on fire?

(Hint: Not by to-do lists and tasks, or excited cheerleading about your “idea.”)

Empathy: The ability to step into the shoes of another.

In the 1930s, the British taxed Indians on salt — leading to mass illness, because salt was unaffordable.

Instead of shaming and blaming them, Gandhi practiced empathy by openly communicating with them, and learning about their fears. He assured them that he aimed to uphold the law, except in the case of laws that violate justice. The citizens, he said, have a responsibility to nonviolently disobey such laws.

Gandhi believed his adversary had a humanity to be awakened.

Risking arrest and attack, Gandhi gathered a crowd to manufacture salt from the sea.

With major papers showing Indians desperately creating salt, Britain soon let go of Indian rule.

Speak to, and step into the shoes of your team, your users, and even your competitors.

What difference might it make?

This simple ability can even sway an opponent to your view. Stepping into another’s shoes takes the courage and willingness to engage with humility, to listen, AND suspend your biased point of view to hear something you didn’t know before.

Empathy is a discipline that reflects directly on the strength of your leadership.

If you are great at empathy, your leadership will be great.

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