Leading Change

by Ron Potter

The basis for this blog is a Harvard Business Review article by Patti Sanchez titled “The Secret to Leading Organizational Change is Empathy.”

I’ve had several experiences in my consulting career and personal life that emphasize the importance of empathy. One of them was a personal experience.

The Association

We moved into a new city several years ago to be closer to one daughter and her family. This particular family lived in the Middle East for at least ten years and we wanted to spend more time getting to know our grandkids before they went off to college. After looking at several possible locations we settled on a small community of condos within a couple of miles of our daughter’s house.

After a few years, I was asked to be the association president. The president before me had been in that position for several years and it seemed to him he was constantly dealing with conflict. When I agreed to run and won the presidential position, his words to me were something like, “Good Luck. This is a rough crowd.” He felt like there were competing desires within the homeowners and there was no way to reconcile them.

There were only sixteen homeowners in the association, so the first thing I decided to do was get to meet and listen to the needs of each of them. I had no agenda and no particular goal. I just wanted to listen and show empathy.

I visited each of the sixteen families and just listened. No goal. No timeframe. No rush. Each family invited me in and talked with me about their situation and desires. I made no attempt to correct or guide them, I just wanted to hear them. I left each visit with no promises made. I had just listened.

There were a couple of difficult issues that the association faced. After those visits, I formulated my plans (with the executive team) and let the residents know what I was going to recommend for a vote at our annual meeting a few weeks later. They had been controversial issues for a few years and I wondered how the discussion and vote would go. There wasn’t much discussion, so we put the issues to vote. All the issues were passed by unanimous votes. People felt they had been listened to. In fact even now, several years later, one of the residents who had been the most controversial and vocal calls me “the best president they ever had.” Why? Because I listened to her with empathy.

Who’s the Boss?

Another issue I remember is related to my consulting career. The CEO resided in the US but they had major operations in Europe and SE Asia. The European leader for the company was Irish and resided in Ireland. He was an authoritarian leader. People did what he told them to do or else. After our team meeting about leading with empathy, I was hoping he would change. Unfortunately, not.

When I began to talk with him about being a leader, I asked him to describe what a leader was like. He proceeded to tell me about the British ruling Ireland. The Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland by English kings happened in the last 1100s. His view of being a strong leader went back nearly a thousand years. But to him, a great, strong leader was based on England ruling Ireland. He wasn’t about to shake that image that a ruler was someone who came in and subjugated people to do what they were told when they were told.


Question your own thoughts and motives. What has your experience taught you? Who empowers you as an employee, that controlling boss who keeps you under his thumb or the empathetic boss who makes you feel like you’re a part of what’s going on?

Most often people think of an empathic leader as weak and a controlling leader as strong. That’s not true. A great empathic leader is one who helps you grow, develop, listen, and help your team make decisions. A controlling leader is one who makes all the decisions and expects you to respond. My observation over the years is that good people will leave a boss like that as quickly as possible. The people who stay under those conditions are sometimes referred to as “yes men” and all the creativity leaves the organization. Believe me, now and in the coming years creativity will become more and more required. Without it, companies will die quickly.

Fortune 500

Only sixty companies remain that were in the Fortune 500 after WWII. Why is that? One of my beliefs is that after WWII, most of the companies on the list were being run by officers from the war. They knew how to “command.” They expected their commands to be carried out without question. Companies were generally not creative. In order to survive the coming years, companies (leaders) will be required to be creative.

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