Lost & Found: The Impact of Empathetic Leadership
“I WANT YOU TO GET OUT!” the vice-priest screamed, billowing his black robe for emphasis like a furious bat.
It was the summer, 2012. I was three months encamped in a Buddhist temple in rural northern Japan, studying the organizational dynamics of these community institutions. I was evaluating the readiness of temples to serve as emergency relief shelters in the aftermath of large-scale disasters for remote and underserved farming villages. In the wake of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown, it was a timely project. To map out the organization, I worked at the temple (I mostly fetched tea), interviewing the head priest and vice priest, their families, long-suffering volunteers, parishioners, next-door neighbors, the gardener, mourners visiting from out of town, members of the community baseball team that practiced in the temple’s parking lot, and just about anyone who would tolerate a conversation with my halting Japanese. It was this canvassing that sparked the vice-priest’s ire. In his opinion, if I was interested in understanding how the temple worked, it should be sufficient - and I should be thankful, he added – to talk to the person at – or at least near – the top. Why was I talking to these lackeys and tourists? Wasn’t his expertise good enough? I was actively disrespecting his authority. I was making him look like a fool.
I tried to explain the nature of my research (I had prior to starting the project, but I thought I’d try again), but the vice-priest wouldn’t budge. He gave me an ultimatum: restrict my research to interviews with him or get out. The head priest and his wife, sitting around the shared table, said nothing. The vice-priest wasn’t just their employee, he was their son-in-law. They didn’t want to rock the boat any more than it already was. I tried appealing to his reason one last time, but the vice-priest refused. By way of driving home his point, he reminded me that not only my project, but my career was contingent on his support. My frustration got the better of me and I told him what I thought of his expertise. The vice-priest shouted for me to get out, so I left.
I passed into my room at a nearby inn in a daze. Numbly, I typed out an email to my advisor, John. I told him what happened and how I responded, how I had lost my research site. I worried about what this would do to academic and professional prospects. I apologized for messing it all up. I was so embarrassed. I sent the message, then laid on the ground and waited for John to receive it in Texas. I was sure I was finished.
John’s reply came eight agonizing hours later. It wasn’t what I expected. I’ll paraphrase from memory:
“Aaron, sorry to hear about that but it sounds like an interesting experience! The vice priest sounds like an ass. Now it’s time to think like an anthropologist. Why do you think he reacted that way? What might be going on behind the scenes?
Your real project starts here. Good luck and happy researching!”
No anger. No condemnation. He didn’t want me to pack it up and head home. Rather, he was sympathetic, if not mildly amused and overtly curious. He expressed some sympathy and then got to business. He reminded me of why I was there, who I was, and what I could do. It was pitch-perfect, exactly what I needed to hear.
Years later. Another university, another project, another advisor. My daughter had come early, too early for her lungs to develop fully. She spent nearly three months in the NICU. She spent another three months on oxygen when she was discharged. Consumed by this crisis, I made little to no progress on my dissertation for nearly eight months.
When Elsie was finally out of the woods and I had worked up the courage to sit down with my advisor, I anticipated a stern lecture about the consequences of my unexpected furlough. At the very least, I expected him to openly worry as to my future. After all, I had been on track throughout my coursework and research, consistently making progress. Now I had seemingly stalled, my momentum lost.
Chris passed my anxiety with a shrug. “You’re still on track,” he said calmly, rotating a coffee cup. “You’ll be fine.”
Once again, it was exactly what I needed to hear. Chris’ words cut through months of anxiety over my daughter, my dissertation, and my future. If someone I respected so much had this much confidence in me, then maybe I really would be fine. Chris was right; I finished my dissertation and graduated on track.
Two different advisors, two different crises, and two different conversations, but with the same through line of empathy and encouragement. I think about these conversations often. They might have been passing moments for John and Chris, unremarkable, but they’ve indelibly colored my interactions with students in the university, mentees in the industry, and with my daughter at home. They taught me an invaluable lesson about what it means when others rely on you. Empathetic people understand the complexity of the human condition and the subtleties necessary to navigate it. Empathetic leaders have the skills and compassion to help others navigate that complexity, especially in a crisis. They cut through the tangle of anxiety and confusion to meet people where they’re at and help them get to where they need to go.
At Psyince, we understand the impact of empathetic leadership because we have benefitted from them in the form of advisors, mentors, and colleagues. I have been incredibly fortunate in this regard. And it is because of this that we work to cultivate empathy-forward leadership.