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

Empathy… Not Always (Empati… Tidak Semestinya)

Written by: on February 21, 2024

In my reading this week, I learned that the author criticizes the dominant leadership models that rely on data, empathy, and quick fixes. He argues that these models are based on a fallacy of empathy that mixes up feeling and thinking, and reactivity and responsibility. He proposes a different leadership approach that is based on strength, self-differentiation, and adventure, which can overcome the regressive forces that hinder our progress – Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.[1] is an inspiring book.

The fallacy of empathy assumes that empathy is a necessary and sufficient condition for making moral judgments or decisions, and that empathy always leads to the right or best outcome.[2]

The focus on empathy rather than responsibility lessens the potential for survival of both leaders and followers. [3]   It has contributed to a major misorientation in our society about the nature of what is toxic to life itself.[4] According to Friedman, orientation toward empathy rather than responsibility lessens the potential for survival of both leaders and follower.[5]

Based on Friedman’s argument on the ‘fallacy of empathy’ in chapter four [6], I reflected on my own experience as a leader. I used to manage the Bid & Contract department, where I supervised employees and led a cross-functional improvement project for the organization. The work environment was demanding but not hostile. Every task had a deadline and a deliverable to meet customer expectations. Bids had to be submitted on time to avoid disqualification. In this context, I had two employees who often called in sick or had family emergencies, especially on Mondays or after a holiday. Sometimes they would only call at 9:00 a.m. to say they were not coming in, leaving me and the rest of the team with extra work and pending timelines. At first, I empathized with their situations, such as ‘family emergencies, car breakdowns, and so on.’ But then I wondered, how could they be sick so often when they seemed fine the day before and after a one-day absence? My empathy gradually diminished. I expected these employees to be responsible for the work they were hired and agreed to do. I expected them to show some initiative to share the workload with those who covered for them for their frequent absences or worked overtime to complete their tasks. They never did!

These absentees created stress and anxiety in other team members, as I mentioned it was a demanding work environment. It impacted on my state of mind to manage productivity, to manage resources and at the same time keeping the rest of the team members happy. (Often to show appreciation I would reward these dedicated team members through HR employee reward program). Thus I agree with Friedman, “as lofty and noble as the concept of empathy may sound and as well-intentioned as those may be who make it the linchpin idea of their theories of healing, education or management, societal regression has too often perverted the use of empathy into a disguise for anxiety a rationalization for the failure to define a position and a power tool in the hands of the “sensitive.”[7] Honestly, I started to resent these two employees, I started to doubt them, and I disliked how I was feeling. Potentially, this could have become a hostile environment.

Just about that time, I decided to enter seminary and I struggled with how insensitive I was because the word ‘empathy’ came up frequently in my classes. Throughout my adult life I have questioned my sensitivity and constantly becoming self-aware when I started to question someone’s accountability and responsibility towards their actions. As I was looking for answers in the scriptures and explore the teachings of Jesus and how He attended to be people, I came across Matthew 9:36, “When He saw the crowds, He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” [8] Empathy is nowhere in the English Bible, not even when I checked the Malay Bible. Compassion and empathy maybe inter-related but the meaning is different. According to Fredman, the word empathy only came into the English language is 1992.[9]

I did not think of it much, until I read a book by Paul Bloom, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, “If the claim here is that you need to empathize in order to do good, then it’s easy to see that this is a mistake. …you can do good things without empathy.[10].

To summarize, I agree with Friedman’s claim and my own experience that responsibility, not empathy, is the key factor in this equation. Being empathic to others, instead of being responsible for one’s own integrity, can reduce the chances of survival for an organism by making them more sensitive to pain, avoiding challenges, and losing their “nerve.” When the leader falls into the empathy trap, it can endanger not only the follower’s survival, but also the leader.[11]


[1] Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, 10th Anniversary ed. (New York, Church Publishing, 2017), 18, 31-32. Kindle.

[2] Ibid., 186.

[3] Ibid., 48.

[4] Ibid., 189.

[5] Ibid., 48.

[6] Ibid., 186.

[7] Ibid., 188.

[8] Mathew 9:36 NIV.

[9] Ibid., 190.

[10] Paul Bloom, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. (New York: NY Harper Collins Publishing, 2016), 42. Kindle.

[11] Ibid., 190-191.

About the Author


Shela Sullivan

Born and raised on the vibrant Penang Island in Malaysia. "Mari Makan!!" — a cherished Malaysian greeting that reflects the warmth of shared meals. Since 1996, I have called Oregon, United States, my home. I enjoy the raindrops and the serenity of its beaches. The ocean connects me to nature and energizes me. I hold Bachelor's in Business & Marketing from University of Phoenix, Master's in Spiritual Formation from George Fox University and Congressional Leadership (Lay Pastoral) Certificate from Dubuque Theological Seminary. I work as a Category Manager for a power utility company and serve as an ordained Presbyterian Traveling Pastor. My aspirational career goal is to become an inspirational speaker. I reside with my husband, David Sullivan, and our fur-baby, Rolo. Our shared passions include traveling, exploring diverse cuisines, home improvements and classic cars. Favorite Bible Verse: Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart. ~ Psalm 37:4 ~

9 responses to “Empathy… Not Always (Empati… Tidak Semestinya)”

  1. mm Russell Chun says:

    Hai Shela, ada sesuatu seperti terlalu banyak empati. Semasa kita membesarkan anak-anak kita, kita menyayangi dan empati terhadap mereka, namun, sebagai ibu bapa kita bertanggungjawab memastikan mereka menyelesaikan tugas-tugas. Sayangnya, banyak ibu bapa Amerika gagal dalam tugas keibubapaan ini dan beberapa kanak-kanak membesar menjadi tidak bertanggungjawab. Orang dewasa ini perlu dipecat kerana mereka tidak produktif dan merosakkan kerjasama pasukan. (AI generated).

    Hi Shela, there is such a thing as too much empathy. As we raise our children we love and empathize with them, however, as parents we hold them accountable for completing tasks. Sadly many American parents fail in this parental duty and some children grow up being irresponsible. These adults need to be fired as they are non productive and destroy team work.

    Thanks for the example you shared.


    • mm Shela Sullivan says:

      Hello Russell, terima kasih kerana membaca catatan saya dan untuk menjawab dalam Bahasa Malaysia. Saya tidak sedar bahawa kamu bercakap Bahasa itu. Kamu orang Malaysia? Jika ya, negeri mana? Betul-lah, akauntabiliti dan tanggungjawab harus ditanamkan pada usia muda.

      Hello Russell, thank you for reading my post and for responding in Bahasa Malaysia. I was not aware that you speak the language. Are you from Malaysia? If so which state? You are right, accountability and responsibility should be instilled at a young age. Cheers!

      • mm Russell Chun says:

        Hi Shela, Language was provided by ChatGPT. I have using it a lot translating my Refugee Resettlement mobile website to 12 different languages. Interlinkt.org

        Sometimes when I am doing the ‘syntopical reviews’ I peer into the class before me (and now after) to see what perspectives that other cohorts have. If you have time it is fun to see.


  2. mm Ryan Thorson says:

    Great post Shela. Thank you! I love the insight you provide on the difference between compassion and empathy.

    If you could go back to your role that you describe, how would you have engaged with these employees differently than you did?

    • mm Shela Sullivan says:

      Hi Ryan,
      Thank you for responding to my post.
      At that time, I was an inexperienced leader and must admit I did not know how to handle these employees.
      Now, I would have had a dialogue with them, get some advice from HR and set clear expectations and hold them responsible for the outcome.

  3. mm Kari says:

    Hi Shela, thanks for the new book title by Bloom. That sounds like an interesting read. I appreciate the difference you emphasized between empathy and compassion. Did you notice any other overlaps between Bloom and Friedman?

    • mm Shela Sullivan says:

      Hi Kari,
      Thank you for your question.
      No, there is not much overlap. Bloom focuses more on accountability and responsibility. His book gave me a certain freedom, realizing that it is okay to expect accountability and responsibility from contributors.

  4. Diane Tuttle says:

    Hi Shela, Thank you for the scripture reminder that Jesus had compassion and that led to action When He felt compassion was to send workers into the field. Do you see a way that it can be useful in the workforce where holding people accountable is so important?

    • mm Shela Sullivan says:

      Hi Diane,

      Thank you for your question. I believe the importance of accountability varies depending on the industry, type of business, or role in the workplace. In sales and customer service, accountability is crucial, as everyone has a role to fulfill and deliver. While I am a compassionate person, I have experienced situations where my compassion was taken for granted.

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