THE MORAL IMPERATIVE OF EMPATHY LEADERSHIP
Updated: Apr 1
At the conclusion of my Fall, 2022 course (EDD605) on data collection for education leaders at CSU, Fullerton, my students concluded that if your data sources don't include empathy interviews of your most marginalized, troubled, and unsuccessful students, your data teams are mining fool's gold. And they meant it. These students entered CSUF's doctoral program because they are empathetic people. They are committed to the program's mission to deliver a leadership preparation program focused on the tenets of Just, Equitable, and Inclusive Education (JEIE). JEIE leadership is grounded in the concept of empathy.
One of the emerging Adjective Leadership styles that have captured the hearts and minds of education leaders is Empathy Leadership. Empathy has long been a trait of effective leaders. It happens to be a trait of people who choose education as a profession.
The COVID experience exposed many leaders (and people) as judgmental and unable to empathize with people. The research suggests that many of these leaders lacked the ability and/or motivation to decenter. As a result, many of them didn't survive COVID. By the time Forbes declared empathy as the most important leadership skill (2021), the shift towards Empathy Leadership had already taken shape in education, resulting in a mass exodus of education leaders on all levels.
Empathetic leaders create safe and productive environments built on a shared vision for success and a strong sense of belonging. As Sebastian Junger has written in his book, Tribe, people have a strong instinct to belong. How do leaders build a strong sense of belonging among their students and staff or in their organization? They begin by deciphering competing voices and giving all voices the space to be heard without filtering those voices through a personal lens.
Known as decentering, this complex act prioritizes listening over hearing, reflecting over reacting, and empathizing over judging. It's an expectation that I have for all members of my team. When we center only one narrative, we disable our ability to understand problems through a prism of multiple perspectives.
Related to student success, leaders committed to empathy recognize that students and staff alike need to feel a strong sense of competency and authenticity, and a connection to others. The most marginalized students before COVID are now the most vulnerable and affected children in today's schools, if they're even attending school (chronic absenteeism is at an all-time high). Liu and Lee discuss the topic in detail in Beyond Chronic Absenteeism: The Dynamics and Disparities of Class Absences in Secondary School. Many of these children have never "belonged" for a variety of reasons both internal and external to the school setting.
The moral imperative of Empathy Leadership is rooted in a deep sense of responsibility to support academic achievement among all students, knowing that all students are not created equal. Students who have experienced or who are experiencing negative childhood experiences are thirty-two times more likely to be less successful than their peers who were raised in a more positive environment.
A secure attachment in a student's home life correlates with school and life success. The empathetic leader identifies and recognizes this indicator, and creates a school culture that overcomes the low expectations that label some children as incapable as a result of their environment.
Empathy from everyone who touches that student's life reduces the damaging impact of a child's home life. Empathic leaders teach their staff, and by extension their students, not to confuse empathy with non-academic behaviors. In fact, the evidence is clear, modeling and fostering empathy in the classroom improves academic achievement. Students who experience empathy are more than likely to demonstrate it.
Empathy Leadership requires an empathetic mindset coupled with a tireless resistance to punitive practices that increase the risk for the range of cognitive, emotional, and health-related problems that have only recently shaped policies and legislation designed to combat institutional racism. The effects of unmet social needs, environmental factors, and barriers to accessing resources contribute to the behaviors that manifest in the classroom. The behaviors are to be expected. Schools should prepare for them, not extricate them.
If you're an empathetic leader you are purpose-driven. If you never give up on a child, a child will never give up on you. Never.
Learn about system coherence for organizational transformation: Don't Give Up. Don't Ever Give Up. Coherence Systems and How District Leaders Can Beat the Odds.