Empathetic Leadership – a Female Super Power
By Roza Bicer
As we enter a new year and decade, let us celebrate women by recognizing a special skill that many women have received informal training in, yet do not receive enough credit for. I am referring to empathy, and it is nothing short of a super power that can transform relationships, teams and organizations. Empathy can be defined as the ability to understand another’s feelings and perspective. It should not be mistaken for weakness, a reasoning often used to debunk the effectiveness of empathetic leadership. Empathetic leadership proposes that leaders who are attuned to and supportive of the emotions of their subordinates are more effective managers (Kock et al 2019).When followers feel supported and understood, they perform better (ibid). Thus, engaging empathetically strengthens relationships, and in turn teams and organizations. Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman defines a leader as a person with the power to influence.In practice, this makes everyone a leader, which is further reason for everyone, regardless of gender or position within an organization, to lead with empathy. Studies show that a supportive leader who makes people feel valued, inspires the rest of the team to follow suit, and one can see an increase in performance. Conversely, a controlling and critical leader causes the team to catch the negative mood, and eventually performance goes down. No matter the leadership style, it gradually shapes the culture of the team or organization.
The importance of empathetic leadership has received increased recognition by social scientists in recent years. It was a main theme in the internal investigation of the Marine Corps about social cohesion, gender bias and leadership within its operation. The Marine Corps commissioned the study after the 2017 discovery of a Facebook group, Marines United, in which 30,000 active-duty male Marines shared nude photos and personal details about female Marines. In the wake of the scandal,hundreds of Marines were investigated upon which more than 100 were disciplined.The discovery of the Facebook account and the following investigations called into question an organizational culture by all accounts permeated by harmful masculinity. In the subsequent report, female Marines detailed numerous instances of sexual harassment and mistreatment, while male Marines anonymously admitted to viewing their female counterparts as nuisances and ill-equipped for the job.The study concluded that there was a lack of awareness about diversity-related issues, resulting in insufficient language to discuss topics such as equality,parity and equity. In addition, the study found that less tangible leadership skills, such as empathy and compassion, were valued. Yet many of those interviewed – keeping in mind that the great majority of Marines are men – felt that empathetic leadership did not come naturally to them and that they lacked adequate training in this skill.
Indeed, the training begins in childhood. Girls and boys are socialized into different gender roles and into upholding different behaviors from the day they are born by engaging with the world around them. Gender is shaped through modeled behavior, through activities, toys, and so on. Whereas girls are nurtured into upholding attributes and behaviors such as being empathetic, pleasing, and subordinate,and are valued for their appearance rather than their abilities, boys are socialized to be tough, unemotional, and stoic, and to uphold dominant and aggressive behavior. This is not to say that boys and men cannot be empathetic. They can indeed, and it is not a trait exclusive to women. Also, being female does not guarantee empathy, nor do all women display empathy to the same degree. Still,overall, women have a greater propensity for it than men due to differences in socialization and reproduction of gender roles. The admission by the male Marines that tapping into their empathetic side required a concerted effort indicates a lower inclination for this trait, whereas women are more likely to have been honing the skill since childhood. Likewise, the objectification of women also begins early on. Praising a girl with seemingly innocent comments such as “What a pretty dress you’re wearing”, or “You are so cute” send the message that her value lies in her physical appearance, and that it is acceptable for people to comment on it.
In recent years, socially conscious parents have opted to raise their children with a gender-neutral philosophy, some children’s stores have scrapped gendered toy and clothing categories, and social movements for women’s rights have raised awareness around sexism. These movements and cultural shifts are important and advance progress, yet there is still an abundance of unconscious bias to go around. The revelation that male Marines shared nude photos of female colleagues is hardly surprising and is too common an example of the many ways in which women are still objectified. It traces all the way back to how men are taught to view women as objects from an early age. The sharing of nude photos may have been exacerbated by the social psychological phenomenon group think. The phenomenon occurs within groups when its members conform to dysfunctional or irrational norms or decisions as a way to maintain harmony within the group. If the norm within the Marines was to objectify female coworkers and to uphold stereotypically masculine behavior, even male officers who might have disagreed with the behavior may have felt pressure to conform for fear of being ridiculed for appearing soft. The socialization of boys into stereotypically masculine roles,then, is harmful to boys and men, too.
Military operations are notoriously male-dominated, and the Marine Corps is no exception. According to CNA’s Population Representation in the Military Services, as of 2016,only 8 % of enlisted Marines were women. In an environment where men are in the majority, there will be less incentive to hold each other accountable for sexist behavior. Thus, sexism is allowed to run rampant, as evidenced by the Marines’internal investigation. In parallel, organizations with low female participation miss out on essential leadership skills that women bring, their propensity for empathy being one of them. Needless to say, with a more equal gender balance, women’s interests cannot be brushed aside, and a harmful masculine culture, such as sharing nude photos of female coworkers, is less likely to go unchecked. A proportionate number of women – including in leadership positions – will infuse military organizations with leadership skills essential to their strength and effectiveness, and simultaneously shift harmful cultures from within. For these reasons, we encourage military organizations to commit to achieving gender balance and equality, and to adopt empathy as a core value.
To the strong and empathetic women of the world – we salute you.
Balvin, Nikola. “What is Gender Socialization and Why Does it Matter?” Unicef. Aug 18, 2017, https://blogs.unicef.org/evidence-for-action/what-is-gender-socialization-and-why-does-it-matter/. Accessed Dec 30, 2019.
Goleman, Daniel. “Leadership and Compassion” YouTube, uploaded by Empathy and Compassion in Society, Dec 22, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TnTuDDbrkCQ
Kock, Ned, et al. “Empathetic Leadership: How Leader Emotional Support and Understanding Influences Follower Performance” Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, Vol. 26(2), 2019, pp 217-236.
Population Representation in the Military Services Fiscal Year 2017. Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, Personnel, and Readiness, 2017, https://www.cna.org/pop-rep/2017/. Accessed Dec 30, 2019.
Szoldra, Paul. “An Internal Investigation Spurred by a Nude Photo Scandal Shows Just How Deep Sexism Runs in the Marine Corps”. Task & Purpose, Dec 4, 2019. https://taskandpurpose.com/marines-united-study. Accessed Dec 30, 2019.
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