Leadership Lessons: Making Space for Empathy

Fall 2021

By Raynard Kington

Independant-schools-Magazine-image-4-final-Michael-Driver-(1).jpgThis past year and a half will surely go down in the annals of management as one of the most challenging for leaders around the globe and across all parts of our society. The pandemic, with its deep human and economic consequences, along with the social upheavals of another period of racial reckoning, have drawn attention to the vulnerability of critical systems like health care and education. And it has relentlessly tested leaders in all settings, sectors, industries, and organizations. 
Every leader has relearned the old dictum that no decision makes everyone equally happy or happy at all. Constituents are perhaps even more inclined to let leaders have it with flaming emails, raised voices, and angry texts and letters because of heightened stress levels, exhaustion, and frayed emotions. At times like this, it is easy for leaders to slide into the historically and overwhelmingly male leadership approach: some version of “toughening up,” intentional emotional distancing. But this, in fact, may be exactly the wrong approach in the face of this difficult period, and toughening up may only increase the likelihood of burnout. 
As the head of school at Phillips Academy Andover (MA) and a former physician, I believe that independent schools can learn from the medical profession as we try to meet our missions, stay financially solvent, and support our communities. Physician burnout has been a growing, serious concern in the medical community even before the pandemic, and now it’s clear that the mental wellness of physicians has taken a hit. The latest figures from Medscape’s annual “National Physician Burnout & Suicide Report 2021” show 42% of doctors overall feel burned out, with more than 50% of critical care physicians saying they’re burned out. Addressing this untenable burnout rate—and why it is important for leaders in medicine and education to take a stand—requires examining the relationship between empathy (the capacity to place ourselves in others’ positions and “feel” what they feel) and the incidence of burnout. 

From a Distance

Some evidence suggests a correlation between burnout and a lack of empathy, but there is debate about which direction the causation flows. One hypothesis is that physician burnout leads to the inability to feel empathy for patients, while another posits that the lack of empathy for patients can in turn lead to the loss of a sense of meaning in work, leading to burnout.
I think back to the advice, some explicit, some merely implied, I received in my early training as a physician: Try not to feel too much. I was advised to develop emotional distance between myself and my patients, because if I did not, I would ultimately no longer be able to function as a physician and that would be of no help to anyone. The advice was particularly common during the early years of my training in internal medicine at a large urban hospital during the onset of the AIDS epidemic. At that time, many physicians and other health care workers struggled to treat an illness of then-unknown causation that almost uniformly ended the lives of previously healthy young people in spite of everything we tried.
When I moved into leadership positions in the medical field and then later outside of medicine, that advice continued to echo resoundingly. Throughout my career, I have been advised repeatedly to develop a thick skin and to figure out a way to downplay my own emotions. At one point, a friend told me to think of myself as a thing—a symbol of an institution or, as another person said, a garbage can to receive the refuse of constituents—rather than as a person because “things” can’t feel. This advice was delivered in many different forms, but the core message was the same: It was essential to create an emotional barrier and ideally not feel my feelings—or at the very least, not let others see that I had feelings.
And I took that advice with me, to a degree. But as I look back on my experiences over the past 20-plus years, I see that I have gradually shifted away from this sentiment. And as I think about how I have responded to the leadership challenges at an independent school that resulted from this pandemic, I have begun to revise my advice for young leaders—and myself: Empathy and emotion are essential.

Having a Heart

Physicians’ ability to empathize with patients requires them to understand and perhaps even share their patients’ pain in some form and requires a vulnerability to pain and emotions. Similarly, school leaders’ ability to empathize with our many constituents—teachers, staff, students, parents—requires us to be vulnerable and to feel pain, even when inflicted by those very constituents. Making toughness a part of the job might negatively impact our mental health and our ability to do our jobs well.
As the medical profession shifts to better prioritize the mental well-being of physicians to stem burnout, we must recognize the importance of pairing an openness of feeling with self-care skills. This goes for school leaders, too—prioritizing mental health and wellness is essential to retaining empathy. Conventional wisdom says that leaders who show emotion are seen as weak, and the cudgel of “emotional weakness” has been wielded regularly against female leaders. But emotions are a valid, essential part of life—of humanity—and if we are not able to feel our feelings, it’s going to lead to an inability to connect with others, upticks in corrosive work environments, and hostility among parties. Consider the pandemic and the daily decisions we had to make during a crisis that continued to wreak havoc in our school communities—major decisions around campus safety and remote and in-person learning to less consequential ones like logistics around meal service. Virtually every decision left some group of people unhappy, even angry.
During my time as a college president from 2010–2020, many of my peers told me they were surprised at how much hatefulness they encountered, whether from students, staff and faculty, alumni, community members, or complete strangers and anonymous social media users. The double whammy of more vitriol delivered by social media coupled with greater demands for leaders to be tough in response may be having an impact on the tenure of some leaders. Between 2011 and 2016, the average tenure for college and university presidents dropped by almost 25%. This decline may partly reflect a growing incidence of presidential burnout not unlike physician burnout. 
Demanding that leaders be tough—and not experience the full range of feelings necessary to connect with our constituents—may not only hurt us emotionally by encouraging us to deny our feelings, but it may also limit our ability to be great leaders. When leaders are compelled to show personal toughness by not revealing the hurt they feel from the personal nature of attacks that come as part of the role, they limit the important human interactions that are the source of meaning for people in these jobs. Perhaps an even more insidious response than toughening up is when leaders develop barely concealed anger that is corrosive and destructive. Empathy is an absolutely essential part of being a leader because it allows people to consider different perspectives. Demanding constant stoicism prevents leaders from being able to do this, disconnects them from constituents, and can ultimately prevent growth or even exacerbate issues. We need to maintain our ability to empathize and provide ourselves and others with the support and tools we will need to carry that empathy.

Being Human

It is futile to think that doctors and leaders, any human beings really, can truly be impervious to emotions. Maybe the answer for better leadership and better-run institutions of all kinds is to stop trying to hunker down and desensitize—and ultimately disengage. By maintaining our ability to feel—especially the hard stuff—and developing better methods of self-care to help us carry that burden of empathy, we are better able to stay human and maintain meaning in our work and our mission. 

Becoming Empathetic 

Here are some practices Kington introduced to his leadership approach.
  • Be vulnerable and acknowledge when you’re upset or hurt. Develop and sustain a trusted group of peers (both within and outside your institution) with whom you can confide and share your frustrations.
  • Jolt your thinking and challenge yourself to get out of a rut. Occasionally shake up what you normally turn to for relief and inspiration, and reach for something different, such as music or art.
  • De-escalate situations where there are differences in opinion; ask questions and be open to hearing people’s rationale to better understand where they’re coming from. 
  • Prioritize self-care. For me, this means starting each day with exercise and intentionally carving out recovery time.
  • Deal with social media vitriol carefully, if at all. Be OK with the fact that there is only so much you can control in this space and that engagement, while necessary from an institutional level, is often futile when emotions are running hot.
Raynard Kington

Dr. Raynard Kington is head of school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.