Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Lie of Empathy

Written by: on September 17, 2015

Some books, the good books, call you into conversation, even when you don’t necessarily agree with everything. Edwin Friedman’s book A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix does just that. His provocative approach that first intrigued me back in 2009 when I started the D.Min program with Len Sweet still draws out a resounding “yes,” or a skeptic “no,” nothing short of one extreme response to another. In fact, I had difficulty making a decision about where I could begin some dialogue, a book rich with launching points, into a post that would be between 500-1000 words.

I could talk about…

the definition of a leader as one who takes a stand based not on the latest technique or more information, but based on his/her integrity of character…

the nature of institutions and their living systemic impact…

reorientation necessary for imagination to take place in uncertainty…

the need to move towards pain rather than avoid it…

integration of heart and head when it comes to leading…

not only being willing to be vulnerable, but loving it…

parenting styles and getting rid of “My child…..” bumper stickers

All of these assertions reside in Friedman’s book (except for maybe the bumper stickers). But when it comes down to it, if I want to stay true to what Friedman insists, I have to look at my own life first. If I’m to be a leader who has any kind of “nerve” of which I would characterize as courage, I need to start with being honest about myself. One of the best ways I’ve discovered to stay honest and in a posture of learning is to not look at what attracts me, but what actually is more of an aversion.

I took a prayer to heart last year. It goes as follows: “I have prayed for years for one good humiliation a day, and then, I must watch my reaction to it. I have no other way of spotting both my denied shadow self and my idealized persona.”[1]

I started to pray for it on a regular basis since I know I so easily fall prey to forgetting my shadow side/idealized persona.  With that said, now after some deeply painful humiliations over the last year, I’ve decided that I’m not so sure I need to be praying that prayer anymore.  I figured I have seen enough significant flaws for a while.

However, while reading Friedman’s book, he pushed a button. I read the section on empathy.  I’ve always considered myself an empathetic person, and actually could say I’ve boasted about it.  The fact that he took on the person who said “I am deeply hurt by your ethnocentric bias”[2] shook me.  How could he do that?  Doesn’t he need to listen to the other person’s “I” statement?  But as I continued reading, I began to see how easily empathy becomes about controlling others, not addressing our own selves.  Here I was thinking I was concerned for other people with all my empathy, when in fact, it had turned into a tool to manipulate.  Empathy when used as manipulation doesn’t allow for self-regulation, functions more easily in darkness rather than light, and becomes a malignant unlearning system. It’s not easy to see the ugliness of a positive attribute gone bad.  In this place of aversion, I discovered something about myself.

I’ve moved from praying for daily humiliation to a prayer for humility which Simone Weil describes as “attentive patience.” Before reading this book, I think I would have agreed with Friedman on this definition of leadership: a self-regulating, well-differentiated, courage undergirded with integrity posture when it comes to leading others, whether in official capacities or not.  Where my paradigm is shifting a bit after reading, with an attentive patience, is that it also requires the hard work of recognizing I’m going to always be learning what it means to lead with responsibility, not necessarily empathy.

At some point, I hope I find places, even in my attraction and aversion, where my buttons are no longer pushed.  By understanding myself more as I understand God more (and the other way around too), I believe I will become less attached to those things that I’ve held as sacred cows – ie empathy – and begin to be a healthy presence that listens to the Spirit when it comes to leadership. As Friedman summed up what is critical to the health of an organization, “That is precisely the function of a leader within any institution: to provide the regulation through his or her non-anxious, self-defined presence.”[3] Only by God’s grace will I be able to find that non-anxious, self-defined presence.


[1] Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011).

[2] Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), 132.

[3] Ibid, 151.

About the Author

Mary Pandiani

Spiritual Director, educator/facilitator, follower of Jesus, a cultivator of sacred space for those who want to encounter God

18 responses to “The Lie of Empathy”

  1. Nick Martineau says:

    Mary…Powerful post that has left me thinking. Lately I’ve been processing Pride and the prayer you shared from Rohr is a great practice to get to the heart of Pride in our heart. As I lead am I willing to honestly look at myself and see my weakness and failures in order to improve and in order to surround myself with others that can help me. Pride often gets in the way of that…I have starred you post and I know I’ll be returning to it to read again. Thanks.

    • Mary Pandiani says:

      Nick – will you show me how to star posts? I wanted to star every one this week. For some reason, this book hit all of us in some powerful ways that we were able with one another.
      I’m glad we’re on this journey together 🙂

  2. Dawnel Volzke says:


    The title of your post drew me immediately. This is very well written. Empathy should always be a good trait, but sometimes I think we focus so much on empathy with others that we don’t lead them through that which we need to have empathy for. Pastors and other spiritual leaders are especially in tune with the emotional and spiritual well-being of individuals. Often, the focus needs to be there when counseling or leading someone to a better place spiritually. However, there comes a point where empathy isn’t enough to help someone through healing or growth. Actionable steps towards improvement must be given and modeled. This is the same at an organizational level. A leader cannot be successful if they only focus on showing empathy, but fail to walk their flock in a forward direction and to cast vision, motivate, and demonstrate decisive action. Too often, we equate leadership with only half of the traits necessary to be successful (humility, servant heart, empathy, caring, etc.) We become imbalanced when we forget that skill, good decision making, knowledge, motivation, influence, and vision are also necessary ingredients.

    • Mary Pandiani says:

      And I would go further and say it’s not so much balanced (I think it’s a myth), but it’s a “centered” leader who incorporates what is needed at the opportune time with wisdom. Sure loved this book, and it seemed to hit a chord for you too.

    • Jon Spellman says:

      AND the ability to say to someone, “Stop being an idiot!” That’s something a leader needs to be able to do


  3. Jon Spellman says:

    Mary, I wonder if there could be any correlations drawn between a healthily differentiated leader with a self-defined presence and Fowler’s Conjunctive Faith? It seems that the ability to stand firmly in one’s own beliefs, not afraid of being different, could be connected with the idea of faith being so strong that one can discuss ideas with radically different thinkers without fear of “losing faith.”

    Am I reaching here?


    • Mary Pandiani says:

      You’ve given me some food for thought….I’ll take a look at Fowler’s work as I know he’s referenced quite a bit. Maybe on the plane to Hong Kong? 🙂

      • Mary Pandiani says:

        So the line at Sea-Tac airport wasn’t too bad….it’s given me time to read Fowler’s Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith. Yes, I would heartily agree that a self-differentiated leader is in that same place as the 5th stage. Not a reach at all. In fact, it’s given me some more ways of considering what it means to age gracefully. While not everyone is a leader in the classic sense, as we age, by being intentional, we can also become more self-differentiated and willing to live into the mystery:
        “A movement beyond the dichotomizing logic of Stage 4, into a more dialogical or dialectical mode of thinking; develops a “second naiveté” in which symbolic power is reunited with conceptual meanings; greater openness to one’s “deeper self,” and recognition of the ways in which one’s socialisation influences one’s unconscious.”
        Sure appreciate the way you stretch my thinking, Jon.

  4. Brian Yost says:

    “I have prayed for years for one good humiliation a day”

    Wow! You are braver that me. My prayer would be more like, “Lord, if I suffer humiliation today, please let me respond, learn, and grow as you would have me do.” Note, there would be a heavy emphasis on the word “if”. I seem to find sufficient humiliation without asking for it. : )
    Thanks for reminding us that our leadership must begin with an honest look at ourselves.
    Great post, see you in Hong Kong.

    • Mary Pandiani says:

      I’m not so sure it’s brave as it is stupid 🙂 Even my spiritual director told me I don’t need to pray that prayer anymore. But I have to admit it has given me some powerful ways to lean into God’s embrace.

  5. Travis Biglow says:

    God bless you Mary for your spirit. Empathy is not a bad thing. Leaders need a measure of it to me to be effective and understand be able to do as Ezekiel did “sit where they sat.” I am glad you stopped praying for humiliations. I have found out that you will receive what you pray for. Mary leadership is not easy and having to have the nerve to face things is even harder. For years i wanted to just be a good support to others because i would not be responsible. But the Lord never let us do that when he has called us to lead and be responsible! Blessings Mary!

    • Mary Pandiani says:

      I like your example of Ezekiel who “sat where they sat.” It’s true that a leader needs to have an understanding of those he/she serves, while at the same time have the capacity to make the hard decisions. I pray that God continues to give me courage, capacity, and wisdom when it comes to those hard decisions.

  6. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Mary, Thanks for the amazing transparency! You wrote, “Empathy when used as manipulation doesn’t allow for self-regulation, functions more easily in darkness rather than light, and becomes a malignant unlearning system. It’s not easy to see the ugliness of a positive attribute gone bad. In this place of aversion, I discovered something about myself.” The is powerful vulnerability and inspiring to me to look for such self-awareness, growth, and transformation. I continue to be amazed at how transforming our program is from all the powerful reading. I am so looking forward to next week when we can all be together and be able to share deeper in all the life change we are all experiencing. Great post and see you in a couple days:)!

    • Mary Pandiani says:

      My daughter asked me today as she dropped me off at the airport, “so Mom, what are you most looking forward to?” I told her the usual stuff like a new place, learning new materials perhaps, but mostly, I’m excited to see the cohort. We’ve gone through a lot in the last year, have a bit more under our feet (maybe), and feel like we can share at an even deeper level. See you in a few days.

  7. Dave Young says:

    Mary, the longing I hear expressed in the last two paragraphs, the longing to be a leader who lives in the fullness of the Spirit. I think there is a difference between knowing God with His Spirit in us and living in ‘the fullness of His Spirit’. I know that’s loaded. But the reason I hear it is because your willingness to embrace humility. A humility posture is one that says to the Lord “search me, know every wicked way”. Exposing motives, agendas, everything. So that I can confess and surrender every corner of my soul. To be the leader you (we) long to be we need to walk in holiness, not our holiness but still we need His holiness vibrant in our lives so the Spirit can fully express himself. In that you’ll have God’s power and be your best you. Sorry, I got a little preachy. Looking forward to catching up in HK!

    • Mary Pandiani says:

      As I put away my stuff in order to board the plane, I plan to ponder your statement: “there is a difference between knowing God with His Spirit in us and living in ‘the fullness of His Spirit.'” Perhaps I’ll have something to add on the other side of the world when I’m done pondering. My desire is to live a life that is full of and in the Spirit, that part I know. See you soon.

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