Part I:  What I Have Learned from My Children

Part I is being published simultaneously by Whitney Johnson, author of Dare, Dream, Do.

Click HERE to read Part I, then continue…


Part II:  Who are Our Leaders Now?

Within current organizational constructs, is it possible to be a hands-on parent and become a leader?  Examples are few and far between.  The numbers for women are as suggestive:  women occupy 46.6% in the U.S. labor force, but only 16.1% of Fortune 500 Board Seats, and 3.6% of Fortune 500 CEOs.4  We work and raise children, but we do not lead.

This is too bad because we may be excluding some of people best equipped to lead our world forward.  Why?  Because they have practiced EMPATHY, which I believe is a missing link to growth and innovation.

Why is empathy the missing link to growth and innovation?

I have spent the last ~20 years helping clients grow and innovate across a wide variety of industries from chemicals to information technology to social services and more.  There are beacons of innovation out there, but they are rare.  Here too, the numbers are clear: 1% of companies drive 40% of new jobs, and only 1 in10 sustains growth.1,2,3 

There is plenty of research showing that the best ideas come from a collision of cross disciplinary perspectives.  Collaboration requires trust.  So does innovation.  Innovation requires change, which breeds fear, which needs trust, which starts with understanding – empathy.  Our workforce has never been more diverse.  Understanding each other now requires the hardest and most deliberate form of empathy – “out group empathy” – relating to someone who does not look like you or have your life experience.  Where my clients have succeeded in growth and innovation, they stewarded a “currency of empathy” as well as money and disciplined management.  They are rare.

What happens at the extreme, when someone has no empathy?  In the Science of Evil5, Professor Simon Baron Cohen of Cambridge University offers a brain-based theory of human cruelty and “zero negative empathy”. Using neuroscience and imaging, researchers can see a link between the absence of empathy functioning in the brain and the psychological classifications of narcissist, borderline, and psychopath.  This got me thinking.  If our organizational systems do not steward empathy, who rises?

Look around you.  You may be lucky enough to work in a growing and innovative environment with a servant leader at the top.  If not, you may recognize characteristics of zero or near zero negative empathy.  Zero empathy leaders do not kill physically, but emotionally and spiritually.  They inspire organizational apathy or worse, interpersonal toxicity.  Zero negative empathy is not good for anyone.  Unfortunately, it is all too common.

Where do we see evidence of Zero Negative Empathy leadership today?

The Queen Bee is far from our ideal of leadership.  What Peggy Drexler recently described in the “Tyranny of the Queen Bee”6  is a caricature which fascinates but makes us cringe. Bullying is not leading. These are leaders with seriously impaired empathy, taking pleasure in causing pain in others or having to put others down in order to preserve their own psyches.  That they seem to particularly target other women is psychologically fascinating.

Joseph Stiglitz writes in The Price of Inequality6: “A basic sense of values should, for instance, have led to guilt feelings on the part of those who were engaged in predatory lending, who provided mortgages to poor people that were ticking time bombs, or who were designing the ‘programs’ that led to excessive charges for overdrafts in the billions of dollars.  What is remarkable is how few seemed – and still seem – to feel guilty, and how few were the whistleblowers.  Something has happened to our sense of values, when the end of making more money justifies the means, which in the US subprime crisis meant exploiting the poorest and least-educated among us.”

He goes on to point out that cigarette companies stealthily made lethal products more addictive while trying to persuade the American public that there was no “scientific evidence” supporting their products’ damage to the human body, while their files were filled with studies to the contrary.  Similarly casinos contract consultants to help them “increase share of wallet of high volume users” (i.e., make gambling addicts more addicted).  Is it the job of business to make money?  Of course, but none of this is capitalism with a conscience, fully seeing the human face and soul of consumers.

Yet, there is also courage in the midst of zero empathy.  People are shining a light on questionable practices in the banking industry .  In the New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago, scientists working in the food industry spoke out about engineering unhealthy foods to be addictive in pursuit of market share and profit.7  “I feel so sorry for the public”, said Robert I Lin, former chief scientist for Frito Lay.  The story was nauseating in many ways, but that people within the industry were speaking out and stepping out was encouraging.

As Stiglitz boldly points out, “When the norms of a society change in a way that so many people have lost their moral compass, it says something significant about the society and the organizational constructs in which we operate.”   I am sure you have your own examples of 0 empathy, as well as courage.

So, what should we do?  Can empathy be taught or awakened in people?  Can an organization steward empathy? How can we grow more empathetic leaders?


Part III:  So what should we DO?

We must continue to remind each generation of parents of the importance of the internal pot of gold…[of] healthy empathy. Empathy itself is the most valuable resource in our world. Given this assertion, it is puzzling that in school or parenting curricula, empathy figures hardly at all, and in politics, business, the courts or policing, it is rarely, if ever on the agenda. We can see examples among our political leaders of the value of empathy, as when Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk sought to understand and befriend each other, crossing the divide in apartheid South Africa. But the same has not yet been achieved between Israel and Palestine or between Washington, Iraq and Afghanistan. And for every day that empathy is not employed in such corners of the world, more lives are and will be lost. – Simon Baron Cohen, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty

We need solutions which allow people to lean into leadership without leaving their humanity (or their children) behind, so that everyone can fully develop and practice empathy along with their “hard skills”.  We need to look to the beacons (leaders and organizations) to see how they steward empathy, and how it drives innovation, inclusion of diverse leadership, and the power to transform industries.  I am fortunate to work with some.  This is what I have learned:

What CEO’S, executives, and Directors on Boards can do to grow empathetic leaders in their organizations:

  • Change your leadership paradigm with world-class, disciplined professional development which supports growth toward leadership at 55 with the wisdom of both intellect and compassion, rather than burned out executives in a corner office at 40.  We no longer retire at 55 and die at 70.  Why do we work as if we do?
  • Focus on outcomes, not where or when people work.
  • Allow for shared work and even shared leadership while raising kids, taking care of parents, etc, because time is the real issue .  Understand that 2 whole people work as 3, and innovation is even more possible in a great partnerships.
  • Unleash the power of hands-on parents in your organization with:
    • Generous maternity and paternity leaves, to allow parents to bond with their infants.
    • True on ramps, bringing back parents who have focused on children in the crucial early childhood years (0-5).  Recognize that their intellect is the same, but their hearts have grown.
    • Make sure men have real options, because they are parents too.
    • Overall, value and steward all of the things that increase organizational empathy.

What Individuals Can Do to Balance Work and Family to Become Empathetic Leaders:

  • Lean in full throttle whenever you can (when not caring for kids, elderly parents, etc), because you earn flexibility with performance and tenure.
  • Project-ize your work and over deliver in order to balance time at home and work.
  • Learn to sell, yourself and your work, so you might have a way out of situations that sap your humanity.
  • Leverage the flexibility of technology, which has never been easier to do than today.
  • Build and nurture a real power network of mentors, champions, peers – two way relationships – with people who truly care about you and vice versa.

I believe that empathy can be stewarded in our organizations and awakened in individuals.  Do you?  In my experience, it works best when led from the top.  Sometimes entrepreneurs inside – intrapraneurs – manage to steward empathy too.  Boards can make or break empathetic culture because of the influence they wield over CEOs – how they act and who holds the seat.  Maybe you are an empathetic leader succeeding with innovation.  Maybe your organization is a beacon.  If so, we need to hear from you, the sooner the better.  What is your story?


Acknowledgement:  I would like to thank the many clients, colleagues, friends, and family who provided feedback, inspiration, and encouragement for this piece, especially Eva Basilion, Board Member of the Hanna Perkins Center for Child Development ( )and Sharon Sobol Jordan, CEO of the Centers for Families and Children (@SobolJordan, ).  Thanks also to Whitney Johnson (@JohnsonWhitney, ) for graciously sharing her platform with me, as she has done with so many others.       




1 Kauffman Foundation, High Growth Firms and the Future of the
American Economy
, March 2010

2 Christensen and Raynor, The Innovator’s Solution, 2003

3 Baghai, Coley, and White; McKinsey & Co, The Alchemy of Growth; 2000

4 Catalyst, May 2012

5 The Science of Evil: on Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, Simon Baron-Cohen, Basic Books/Perseus Book Group, 2011.

6 Joseph Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality:  How Today’s Divided Society Endangers our Future, W. W. Norton & Co.; June 4, 2012

7 “Inside the hyper engineered, savagely marketed, addiction-creating battle for American ‘stomach share’”, by Michael Moss, New York Times Magazine.

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An Antidote to Our Empathy Deficit Disorder


An Antidote to Our Empathy Deficit Disorder

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