Why Leaders Need Empathy and Flexibility

Dr. Larry Richard

By Dr. Larry Richard

When I design a leadership course for a law firm, I usually include an assessment component. Effective leaders need to be self-aware–they need to understand their strengths and weaknesses, their possible blind spots, and the style of leadership to which they gravitate. To gain this kind of insight requires feedback. The two most common types of feedback that we use are 360-degree surveys coupled with a high quality personality test that measures traits that are germane to leadership.

Over the years, I’ve observed that two personality traits in particular seem to differentiate effective lawyer-leaders–Cognitive Empathy, and Flexibility. The more empathic and flexible a lawyer is–when s/he is in a leadership role–the more effective s/he will be as a leader.

Does this mean you’re out of luck if you’re low on these traits? Not necessarily. Think of personality as a “comfort zone”. A low score simply tells you that you aren’t as comfortable using this trait. If it’s nevertheless an important behavior, you can still do it–you’ll just have to work harder at it than will an individual with a high score on the trait.

Recently I was working with a ten-person leadership team from a mid-size law firm and was surprised to find that literally the entire team, without exception, had low scores on both of these traits. Statistically speaking, this is fairly unusual. So should we “throw them back in the pond” and get a new batch of leaders?

Not at all. Each of these individuals has many other leadership qualities, and were selected for this program because of their leadership potential. The best use of personality feedback is not as an exclusionary tool, but rather as a feedback tool–“Here’s what you need to work on if you want to be more effective.”

Personality traits have a strong genetic component, and tend to be very stable over time, so they are hard to “change”. But every trait can be “managed”. For example, I’m high on a trait called “Urgency”–I’m much more impatient than most other people. I’ve always been that way, and I will most likely remain that way for the rest of my life–I can’t change the trait. But over the years, I  have learned how to manage my “ready-fire-aim” tendency, first by becoming aware of it, and then by learning a set of mental strategies that allow me to be more mindful in how and when I express this trait.

When I asked the lawyers in this program what personal leadership skill they wanted to work on, many of them chose to work on ways of better managing their empathy or flexibility.

Why are these traits important to leaders?

Cognitive empathy has to do with taking the perspective of another person. Leaders often need to influence the other lawyers in their firm or their practice to change how they’re behaving in some way. There are usually a multitude of ways to get others to change. An effective leader needs to think through in advance which strategy will work best with which individuals. The ability to accurately predict how another person will react emotionally and behaviorally in a given set of circumstances is what “cognitive empathy” is all about. The better you are at this trait, the more accurate and successful you will be in figuring out the approach that will work when you want to influence someone else.

(Cognitive empathy is quite different from “emotional empathy”. Emotional empathy involves feeling what the other person is feeling–remember “I feel your pain”?)

Flexibility, on the other hand, is a trait which is characterized by an open attitude–open to new ideas, new ways of doing things, openness to the possibility that how I’m doing something might not be the best way. The opposite of Flexibility is Stubbornness or Rigidity.

Leaders need to try stuff that no one has done before. We never have perfect information, so leaders are often experimenting, and some experiments fail. If you are low in Flexibility, then you’re likely to just keep trying the failed behavior over and over–“It should work–let’s try again.” The flexible leader will try something different instead of digging their heels in and getting stuck.

Hopefully you can develop your own skills in these two important areas. Remember, as you’re working on this, I feel your pain.

If you have comments or reactions, we’d like to hear from you.

© 2012 LawyerBrain LLC  –  All rights reserved

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