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  • John Chambers, PhD

Empathy: Leadership Strength

“Who is the living food for the machines…- ? Who lubricates the machine joints with their own blood - ? Who feeds the machines with their own flesh - ? Let the machines starve, you fools - ! Let them die - ! Kill them - the machines - !” (Metropolis, 1927)

The climactic resolution of that cinematic tour de force didn’t resolve the dichotomy of its worker vs. thinker paradigm. It proposed a mediation or empathetic detente between the contrasted social classes. The zeitgeist was understandable at that moment in history. But it should be less so now, whereupon a 'worker vs. thinker’ perspective is offensive on its face. Yet vestiges of the class perspective instead of the person perspective remain. An executive who views the firm as such has forgotten that the company’s future depends on individuals who each must innovate and grow, lest the firm wither and die.

The machines in Metropolis were sustained by individuals whose only value was rote care and feeding of the infrastructure and technology. The irony we recognize today is that the care and feeding of machines, the adaptation of automation to processes, and the technological miracle that is quality of life, stem from a true collaboration among management, professional, and machine. Machines won’t work unless those who build and nurture them advance their skills and lead innovation.

As technology extends its reach, only through the talent and skill of the technologist, implementer, and assessor, are the customers served. And subsequently, evolving customer needs will provoke further innovation and technology breakthroughs. The optimal production capability rests on the ability of the knowledge professional, the master of adaptation and the pillar for new innovation. Innovation demands workers -- professionals -- who can operate and manage ever-evolving processes and services. Teams in the organization not only create but maintain competitive advantages – they are the lifeblood of the company and the customers’ benefactor. These teams are the forces of dynamic adaptation, adjusting to latest tools, processes, trends. It is incumbent on enterprise management to cultivate the mindset of flexible adaptation and knowledge, just as it is incumbent on all professionals to ensure their own value in the changing world of machines.

Perhaps the final recognition in Metropolis, the force of empathy promised by a “Mediator,” was more prescient than I first intimated. True, the class structure was unchanged, and as decades have passed we have witnessed class structures crumbling. Thankfully. But more than ever we need empathetic mediators -- not among cinematic masters or slaves but among firm managers, executives and professionals. The mediators of today, in the firm, must reconcile the needs of customers with the forces of production, team collaboration, all while understanding managerial conflicts and addressing misaligned priorities.

Empathy is a leader’s strength.

Those executives without empathy shall fade into oblivion. In an engagement years ago, I recall a divisional executive who was commenting on a senior manager (not present at the time). Well, he wasn't commenting, but criticizing openly to others in the room. The executive characterized the manager as a “sycophant.” Startled by this condescension, I thought long and hard about it. I had watched that other manager regularly, learned from him, coached him. He always struck me as open, transparent and hardworking. It dawned on me that the manager was not a sycophant but, rather, polite! In fact I recall him behind polite to every human being in the building, extraordinarily respectful to the custodial staff, the cafeteria staff, every supervisor, executive and professional alike. He was more than the quintessential “nice guy”; he was openly decent and considerate to all.

He never shied from challenging his supervisors, so why would that executive characterize him as a sycophant? I then considered the executive who bad-mouthed him -- often enough he was surly, sarcastic and arrogant. The final adjective gave me the insight that spoke chapters. The manager was not a sycophant at all; the executive just assumed, in his own arrogance, that the manager was nice to him only because the executive was one of the “bosses.” It never occurred to the executive that the manager’s nature was optimistic and polite because that is who he was. The sincere kindness in every exchange was not just toward executives, but to everyone in the building.

That executive represented everything that is wrong with an organizational hierarchy. He never understood that each role in the hierarchy was less about “boss and subordinate” and more about accountability and responsibility:

The manager mobilized an engineering team.

The executive reconciled various teams’ priorities against external business factors.

The manager did his job.

The executive forgot that he, himself, was also another employee in the firm, whose responsibility was to the firm’s performance and its customers.

Each function reporting to the executive would crush the overall success of the division if its reporting manager was not effective. The executive had no empathy, no ability to comprehend other personalities. He only sustained his outlook via his ego, seeing kindness and courteousness as weakness.

The innovative enterprise can only evolve through an understanding of others’ viewpoints and others’ personal styles. This isn't to say we don't get angry at times. We are human. Yet empathy is a cornerstone of solid leadership and strength. Empathy is critical to advancing employees’ value and inspiring employees to advance as innovators.

Quality of life is rising.

Empowerment of individuals is growing thanks to machines, our robot allies. Those robot partners help us deliver the innovation, in mass production and speed of analysis. Disruptive innovation demands knowledge professionals who are advancing their own careers in line with the advancing capabilities of the firm and growing automation.

Jobs are not static; they are ever changing. They are not objects to be controlled or traded. Executives must seek ways to socialize some facts that may be unsavory – nobody owns a job. Nobody loses a job to "slave labor" because most of that work is being automated anyway. (Now if you want to argue that the machines are the slaves, I’d defer the philosophical challenge to when robots become sentient and self-aware.)

Nobody possesses a job.

Nobody finds a job.

Nobody loses a job.

Jobs are not owned.

Nobody owns a career or a task or a project any more than one owns a relationship or morning jog or written keystroke. We travel through our individual time lines by trading for mutual benefit. The speed at which our contributions diminish is correlated with changes in the market.

When managers and team contributors both recognize that they are mutually dependent, and are responding to change as well as driving change, they are both enabling an innovative company. Both manager and individual contributor are accountable for adapting to the robots around us, building better robots, and adapting to seas of enterprise metamorphosis. That kind of collaboration and mutual respect are powerful competitive forces in the marketplace.

The knowledge worker is fast becoming the only worker. Corporate tasks and initiatives are entwined with technology and the velocity of information exchange. Every human being must coexist within a world of artificial intelligence and automation. Even emerging economies are evolving at an accelerated pace thanks to information accessibility.

Executives must understand the perspectives and the styles of every valuable professional in the company. See them as the lifeblood of our machines, and see machines as the lifeblood of our growth and success. Help all employees to advance as innovators, responsible for refining machines, engaging with new machines, and creating new avenues for mutual success.

As the robot 'Maria' reminds us, in Fritz Lang's pioneering film from nearly a century ago, “There can be no understanding between the hands and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.”

An executive without empathy and an individual contributor without empathy are dysfunctions on the horizon, like malware in an unsuspecting machine. All parties in the enterprise are accountable for innovating and growing, understanding the perspectives of customers and each other.

The professional, the executive, and the enterprise have something else in common. At the heart, if none of them innovate, none of them will survive.

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