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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

On Leadership Mobility and Empathy

Written by: on April 20, 2021

Death is an inevitable reality. It comes to individuals, ecosystems, and entire civilizations, as all things have a beginning and end. Sometimes death comes quickly; other times it comes slowly. Our current cultural reality finds us in an extended season of death. We are situated in a global pandemic that has disrupted political, economic, social, and religious structures in significant ways. How we navigate these deaths will determine our ability to bring forth holistic and healthy new ways of living.

Margaret J. Wheatley examines the rise and fall of civilizations, biological systems, and leadership postures in Who Do We Choose to Be: Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity. Citing work by Sir John Glubb, she notes a particular pattern to the rise and fall of civilizations. In the course of ten generations (roughly 250 years), regardless of technological advances, civilizations all rose and declined through six stages: The Age of Pioneers, The Age of Conquest, The Age of Commerce, The Age of Affluence, The Age of Intellect, and the Age of Decadence.[1] Based on the Age descriptions, we fall solidly into the Age of Decadence where “wealth and power have led to petty and negative behaviors, including narcissism, consumerism, materialism, nihilism, fanaticism, and high levels of frivolity.”[2] In this age, celebrity culture reigns supreme alongside the entertainment and sports industries. Leadership sees itself as impervious, destined to rule indefinitely. Welfare systems are built to care for the poor, but when monies run out, those systems shut their doors, leaving many destitute.[3]

Wheatly highlights the “myth of progress,” where humans, specifically over the past 300 years, believed if they simply progressed in their intellect, technology, and ways of living, their developed society would continue for generations to come. Sadly, this is not the case, for “the very innovations that gave capacity end up destroying a civilization,” as people fall blind to the breakdown of interpersonal relationships and diverse systemic ecosystems.[4]

Prior to Wheatly’s published text, Simon P. Walker made similar observations where “Western civilization is nearing the end of its current life cycle. The (2008) economic crisis is merely a manifestation of a wider, more systemic breakdown of our civilization.”[5] He notes the breakdown of our social, political, economic, and religious structures. He highlights how consumerism has increased the fragility of those structures, and how decreased social capital contributes to societal collapse.[6] Thirteen years later it is clear that sometimes the death of a particular society is slow and gradual, as circumstances continue to worsened for much of the American population.

As the complexity of society increases, so does the specificity of leadership. Leaders become less nimble and able to adapt, leaving gaps in support systems for large pockets of society. This is especially true as systems inevitably die. This specialization leaves leaders skilled at birthing and growing processes little ability of facilitate the contraction and death of those same systems.

Such focused leadership is a detriment to the communities and organizations served. During times of uncertainty and death, two primary types of leadership are needed. The first is an adaptable leadership, which Walker calls leadership mobility. Leadership mobility utilizes different forms of power to achieve particular goals.[7] Walker notes that “mobility is the most important capacity a leader needs to develop” to be effective in their role.[8] Mobility can be learned, but it takes practice. Tips to develop increased mobility in leading include: purposely stepping into roles that require you to lead in different way, reflecting on experiences when different strategies are used, inviting others to speak into your life to help evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, serving others in a capacity that doesn’t require you lead, being attentive and noticing what is happening in the present, laying down power to make sure you don’t need to be powerful, and being patient, allowing yourself to become increasingly undefended during a time of waiting.[9]

The second type of leadership is one grounded in empathy and compassion. As ideological, societal, and structural systems crumble, grief and confusion mount. Walker suggests society will go through “the usual stages of the grieving process,” including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.[10] While his intent is good, his grief model is outdated. Grief surrounding death and loss is much more complex and unpredictable than he infers. Leaders need to move proximate to death and be well versed in psychological, theological, and cultural aspects of grief to help individuals and communities navigate the collapse of particular aspects of their society.

We live in tumultuous and anxious times. Leaders who effectively employ leadership mobility and empathy will not only do well to care for those experiencing death and grief in their communities, but will also help their communities endure the pain associated with the birthing of new life that is sure to follow.

 

 

[1] Margaret J. Wheatley. Who Do We Choose to Be: Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity. (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2017) 34-36.

[2] Ibid., 36.

[3] Ibid., 36.

[4] Ibid., 38-41.

[5] Simon P. Walker. The Undefended Leader: Leading with Nothing to Lose. (Piquant Editions Ltd., 2010) 321.

[6] Ibid., 330-395.

[7] Ibid., See Part 2B for the eight strategies of power in an organization.

[8] Ibid., 290-291.

[9] Ibid., 297-298.

[10] Ibid., 404.

About the Author

mm

Darcy Hansen

12 responses to “On Leadership Mobility and Empathy”

  1. mm Dylan Branson says:

    The latter – leadership founded on empathy – is something that I see lacking in Hong Kong. With various decisions that have been made in the political realm, there is normally an outcry of pain, distrust, fear, and betrayal from the Hong Kong people. However, they are simply shamed for those feelings. This isn’t allocated just to leadership though, but I see it in day to day life.

    When vaccines were first available in Hong Kong, there was a lot of hesitation regarding the Chinese Sinovac vaccine. People were afraid because not all of the information had been released yet (or had been found to be false in some places), but leaders slammed people for not wanting to take it. People were opting to wait for the BioNTech vaccine and I remember reading a comment on a news site saying something along the lines of, “Cancel the BioNTech orders and force everyone to take the Sinovac. They have not right to be afraid.”

    Even now, the leadership is using people’s livelihoods as incentives to get vaccinated. The bar industry has been shut down completely since December and restaurants have been forced to operate at half capacity. Now they’re saying the bars can begin to open if ALL of their employees are vaccinated and all customers must use a tracking app to show they’ve checked in. There’s been a lot of outcry from the industries over these rules as the burden of vaccination has been shifted to their shoulders.

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Do you think the government’s actions and responses have to do with cultural nuances around shame and honor culture? As in respect for authority and honor for the community over individual is paramount? To disagree is to bring shame on individual and country? I would think in HK there is a weird mix of Western and Asian influences that cause division? Would Friedman (who, if I remember, is not a fan of empathy) agree with HK leadership’s response?

      • mm Dylan Branson says:

        When I talked with one of my friends about it, she said that it’s similar to traditional Asian parenting (though another said it’s more just “tough parenting”). Basically, it’s a mindset of “listen to me and you’ll be rewarded.”

        The honor and shame aspects definitely come into play, which is why when a mistake is very blatantly made, it’s just swept under the rug like it never happened. There’s such a divide between the elite and the “Average Joe” type. At one point, they banned eating in restaurants entirely and restaurants could only offer takeaway. However, it was essentially an overnight decision and they didn’t take into account the many construction workers, street cleaners, etc. who relied on restaurants during lunch. What’s more is that they had to find a place to eat, so they just ended up finding stairwells and office buildings and were camping out there because they had nowhere else to go. This caused more conflict and after a day, the government reversed their decisions.

        I guess the thing that sticks out to me from the whole scenario is more that leaders can more easily build empathy when having skin in the game with their followers. I think that’s the balance a leader should ultimately be striving for — recognizing the needs and emotional processes behind them, while still having that emotional distance.

        • mm Darcy Hansen says:

          Thanks for unpacking that more for me. If empathy isn’t native to bring, then its difficult to implement what you don’t know. But I agree, having skin in the game is key. If a leader has no clue about working class rhythms and challenges, how can they begin to understand the impact of the legislation they implement? I do not think we can have skin in all games, but when leading a particular population, we have to have some hands on idea about the realities faced each day. My husband does this beautifully as he builds relationships with those he leads. Many have sent him notes telling him thank you for caring about their mother who was dying, or their daughter’s gymnastic’s meet. He knows who is working three jobs and how far their commute to work is. He pays attention and leads accordingly. Empathy takes time and interest in people, more than efficiency and interest in the bottom line. The bottom line happens, efficiency/cooperation happens, when people know you care.

  2. mm John McLarty says:

    What I read in this post is a clear definition of maturity in leadership- one that is adaptive and able to adjust and one rooted in care and concern for others. This kind of leadership does not ignore or avoid the messy and more difficult challenges of life and death. So…if our society is in its final Age and an inevitable change to some new kind of society is getting ready to emerge, how can leaders help people transition to the next Age of Pioneers?

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      The Age of Pioneers is characterized by fearlessness and courage. It maintains a posture that expects attacks. The community has a shared purpose, honor, and a strict moral code (Wheatley, 35). As systems contract and transform, it is important to have a shared identity, purpose, and way of understanding the world. Building community through intimate social ties is paramount. Leaders who are compassionate and attentive to daily realities and who are wise and insightful are best able to remain grounded, “stable minded (Wheatley, 265)” (non-anxious, un-defended) during times of turmoil. Wheatley also suggests leaders must create possibility over aggression. Hope for humanity must always be at the forefront, as well as the ability to act in a way that helps people feel secure. As I type that, it sounds super easy, very utopian, which is far from the reality we exist in. Wheatley suggests large communities will contract and resource availability significantly shift. People will be forced to work together again, to depend on one another. That can only happen as social capital increases- think small towns, close knit communities, shared realities. This makes me think of permaculture communities.

      That all seems impossible in this postmodern world. But if the prophets of our day are accurate, it is where we are heading. I suppose our role is to be aware, let people know what we are going through is normal, give it language, validate experience, and remind them humans have been doing this dance since the beginning of time. Together we will find our way through.

      • mm John McLarty says:

        Thanks for that thoughtful response. We can trust that God will remain with us along the way, even if life in a new era requires more from us than this era has.

  3. mm Greg Reich says:

    Darcy you bring up a valuable side of leadership. A leader not only ushers in new ideas and perspectives, they must also be willing to lay to rest old ideas and perspectives. In many ways leaders are bridge builders between the old and the new. Your work looking at death appears to have leadership principles woven throughout it. Would you agree?

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      I agree. This revelation is a surprise to me. I’ve noticed over the course of this past year how very important it is to recognize how all the little deaths of life impact our ways of existing in the world; how it impacts our way of leading others in various contexts. Of course Jesus was the master of communicating how the death of one thing leads to life- not only was he the Bridge, but his teaching was meant to be the bridge as well- think “You’ve heard it said, but I say…”- He consistently invited people to allow old ways of being, old understandings, old practices to die so new life could emerge. His purpose was focused and his vision clear. He accomplished all by abiding in his Father. His invitation to us is the same. But to abide and live, we must continually die. And as we know, few actually want to do the work of death, for it is hard, often painful, filled with mystery and uncertainty.

  4. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    What was your take of Friedman’s hatred of the word/concept of empathy? I argued in last semester’s paper that he conflates a lot of other meanings into his usage, but I’m curious what you thougth.

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      I agree Friedman is not a fan of empathy. He believes it’s a manipulative tactic of those who are weak to get those in power to move into a regressed state of being. Friedman advocates focus should be on strength over weakness, responsibility over empathy (feelings). Empathy is a way of avoiding personal responsibility, in his estimation, and that in turn is a failure of nerve when leading. He argues self-regulation is more important than being present with others in their feelings. To fall into the empathy trap is dangerous for both follower and leader. Empathy is a hallmark of an anxious system that tends toward togetherness/herding. To focus on empathy and other’s weakness, is to “subvert the self-differentiation process” of the leader (Friedman, 133-138). I agree with Friedman, to a point. But I believe a well differentiated leader can remain empathetic to the weakness of others, AND call out their strengths and hold them responsible. I don’t think it’s an either/or situation. Strong, well differentiated leaders are able to navigate paradox in a way that invites others to do the same. Thoughts?

  5. mm Chris Pollock says:

    Definitely approach the connection with Margaret Wheatley. So many pearls she offers in her work.

    Would you say that mobility can be learned/strategized and empathy honestly faked in order for a present, engaged, ‘aiming-at-undefended’ leadership?

    It seems, for the time we are in, this is the most practical approach for leaders wanting to be leaders, in the ‘station’ of leadership.

    I’m always curious about the ‘original’ thing. One who’s in it naturally, living into the role, expressing with lightness to it, without the struggle to ‘be it’ or to ‘do it’.

    Still, I would prefer be near to a leader who is trying very hard yet-usually-missing-the-mark, than to one who doesn’t care but for themselves yet shines like the sun and appears ‘the saviour’.

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