Science & Medicine

The Empowered Patient – Oct. 2012

Empathy and Leadership

by Michael G. Goldstein

As we approach election day, I have been doing a lot of thinking about the links between empathy and effective leadership. I must admit that I have a bias toward leaders who exhibit and express empathy, especially about the plight of people who have serious chronic medical conditions; people like us.

“The biggest deficit we have in the world right now is an empathy deficit. We are in great need of people being able to stand in another person’s shoes and see the world through their eyes…..So much of what binds us together as a society and allows us to function effectively depends on that, and so much of what’s wrong with how we interact, and our politics, has to do with the absence of empathy.”

These words were spoken by Barack Obama, on July 27, 2007. President Obama clearly values empathy as a way of understanding and connecting with another person. As a leader, President Obama employs empathy as a tool for understanding the concerns, unmet needs, pain and the suffering of citizens who have experienced a wide variety of distressing challenges, including war, joblessness, poverty, natural disasters and discrimination.

Why is empathy such a critical characteristic of an effective leader? Empathy allows leaders to build bridges with those of us who may feel unheard, disconnected or disenfranchised, particularly during hard times. As President Obama noted, feeling heard and understood by those in power “binds us all together”. Genuine expressions of caring can be an important ingredient in the healing process, especially after a huge disaster like Katrina, or when we lose loved ones in the line of duty, or when we learn we have a serious and life-threatening myeloproliferative neoplasm.

Following up on empathic understanding is ultimately the true test of leadership. Our best leaders do more than just connect with those who are suffering. They employ empathic understanding to draw attention to gaps in resources and services and set strategic priorities for meeting unmet needs.

Daniel Goleman, the author of the best seller, Emotional Intelligence, describes a form of empathy he calls, “compassionate empathy”. When we experience compassionate empathy, we not only under­stand a person’s experience and connect with them, we are moved to help. As my former colleague, Dr. Vaughn Keller, explains, “Compassion is empathy plus action “.

We need truly compassionate leaders who are willing to go beyond empathy and take actions that will reduce suffering.

President Obama demonstrated empathy when he listened to the anger, frustration and distress of citizens who had huge medical bills because they did not have health insurance or had inadequate coverage for the lifesaving treatments they needed. Then, he channeled his empathy into committment, and then determination, as he fought for the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the US’s first meaningful effort to provide our citizens with universal health insurance. This is an example of compassionate empathy.

Taking steps to relieve suffering is not only compassionate; it is the “right” thing to do. The best arguments for universal health insurance are moral arguments: health care is a right, not a privilege; high quality medical care should be accessible to all, not just to those who can pay; no one should be denied insurance because they have a pre-existing medical condition. These beliefs stem from my experience as a physician, caring for patients who have struggled to get the care they need and deserve.

Since developing PV, and hearing about the challenges that many of you have experienced, I have developed an even deeper understanding of the needs of people who must live with and manage a serious chronic medical condition. We need leaders who can empathize with our plight…and fight for what’s necessary to make things right.

Please share your thoughts about the relationship between empathy and effective leadership as well as any examples of compassionate empathy that you may have experienced.
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© Michael Goldstein and, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Goldstein and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Comments on: "The Empowered Patient – Oct. 2012" (2)

  1. Thank you Michael. Great timely topic and I agree with your assessment of Obama. I find it hard to believe that the Romney/Ryan ticket show absolutely no empathy towards government supported science and medical research. Refusing to understand how difficult it will be for patients like us to find our way through a voucher program if any of us were to lose our health insurance.

  2. Kathy Van Meter said:

    I have spent much time with the birth to 3 population, both personally and professionally, and firmly believe that we are born with the capacity for empathy. Lucky are those little ones who are born into families that value, and thus model empathy. Grandaughters, Brianna, 14 mos. and Kelsey, 6 mos. spend much time together and their interactions are a joy to watch. Bri brings toys, pacifiers, blankets, etc. to Kelsey, pats her when she cries and has a genuine look of distress on her face when she does cry, often joining her in a tragic wail. What a shame that the “compassionate empathy” we have for others can be sucked right out of us as we age and experience the “take care of #1” mentality.

    I really enjoy your thought provoking articles, Michael.


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