Should leaders want sympathy?

by Matt Grimshaw
October 5, 2017

Like everyone else who was working hard yesterday (or simply had better things to do) I missed Theresa May’s conference speech.

It was pretty difficult to miss the lowlights though. And the impression from the video clips on social media was that everything that could have gone wrong, did go wrong.

In her analysis on the BBC News website, Laura Kuenssberg suggested:

“Her allies are proclaiming the ordeal as a demonstration of her best values – her resilience and determination to keep going.

No leader, though, wants the sympathy vote, they want to be respected, loved, and perhaps feared.”

Which set me thinking… is this true of business leaders? Should they ever aspire to the sympathy of their employees and customers?

We certainly aren’t short of business leaders whose behaviour engenders respect and fear. But is this the right model for contemporary business? Something about the ‘respect, love and fear’ model feels inherently hierarchal and anachronistic to me. Companies run by leaders who carry on like kings in the ivory tower are the ones most vulnerable to disruption.

Sure respect, love and fear have their uses, but it’s difficult to see how an organisation can generate new insight, respond quickly to new opportunities or execute new initiatives at pace unless there’s some sympathy or empathy between leaders and employees or leaders and their customers.

Leaders who feel remote, whose pay and benefits disconnect them from their employees and customers are the ones most at risk of finding themselves the emperor in the new clothes.

And when things go wrong, as they inevitably do, I think it’s an endorsement of your leadership style if people feel sympathy, rather than that you’ve finally got your comeuppance. I suspect neither RyanAir’s customers nor its employees felt much sympathy for Michael O’Leary.

To be honest, I don’t think anything that happened yesterday changed the cold hard truth of George Osborne’s assessment that following the election Theresa May is a ‘dead woman walking’. However I do think it will do her leadership brand a lot of good. Better for the electorate to sympathise with the challenges she faces, than to think she’s a robot.

So for me, leaders should treasure the sympathy they get when things go wrong. Employees and customers can only sympathise with leaders who are authentic and human. It seems to me that sympathy is a sign of a healthy, connected organisation rather than a poorly led and dysfunctional one.

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