Defining Leadership through the lens of Sympathetic Intelligence: Emotion, intention, transparency, empathy

July 7, 2023 at 7:23 AM
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Defining Leadership through the lens of Sympathetic Intelligence: Emotion, intention, transparency, empathy

Lindsay Jacobs, Lauren Dilorenzo, and Jim Stellar

Many coaching podcasts and articles on leadership are currently circulating and we find ourselves fascinated by them, the topic of leadership, and the brain mechanisms that underlie effective leadership. Here, we have pulled together some ideas around effective leadership as well as a tentative list of principles and practices that leaders might employ as they work towards increasing their own effectiveness as leaders. 

But first, we must define effective leadership, at least in our terms. We believe empathy is an integral characteristic of an effective leader for the people being led or the team. But leaders also need to interact with the system that is around them (as well as their team), which is more broadly known as “systems-thinking.” Both of these ideas can be seen as a form of a new concept called sympathetic intelligence.

So what is sympathetic intelligence? The concept comes from a newly forming Center for Sympathetic Intelligence. The Center for Sympathetic Intelligence takes as its guide the kinds of interactions that its founder observed when he played the drums for an Irish rock band and saw a diverse audience react in sympathy with his drum beat and then with each other. One short video on the center’s website shows the resonance between two tuning forks. When one fork is struck, it causes the other to begin vibrating even though it was not struck – due to the sympathetic sound vibrations. As the video suggests, people can be like tuning forks and resonate with each other. It is this “clicking” or resonance between people that we think applies here to our blog on leadership.

The question then becomes, how can we make things “click” as a leader? Recognizing the importance of sympathetic intelligence on leadership, we have found that effective leaders often hold the below principles or understandings:

  1. A leader must lead “whole people” within a whole team (Systems Thinking). This refers to leaders’ holistic perspective of each human on their team, while still recognizing how the “wholes” interact both as a whole but also as part of a larger whole (Shaked and Schechter, 2013).
  2. A leader needs to focus both on what is in their control as well as what influence they may hold for those things that may be out of their control. This is based on a leader’s awareness that countless reciprocal influences are at play among various team or school elements, each of which is connected to others, affecting them and being affected by them.
  3. A leader must adopt a multidimensional view, contemplating several aspects of a given issue simultaneously.
  4. A leader must be able to prioritize. By envisioning elements of a team or school life according to their significance in terms of the entire system, they can better prioritize the many tasks at hand.
  5. A leader must understand Adult Development and how it relates to the individuals on their team. By understanding how adult learners make meaning of the world (Drago-Severson and Blum-DeStefano, 2016), leaders can offer more effective and responsive feedback. Drago-Severson and Blum-DeStefano share the four main ways that adults make meaning in the world as: 
    1. Instrumental knowers are rule-oriented.
    1. Socializing knowers are other-oriented.
    1. Self-authoring knowers are self-reflective.
    1. Self-transforming knowers are interconnected.
  6. Leaders must understand how Embodied cognition impacts each person individually. Embodied cognition refers to combining the cognitive understanding with the limbic system (gut level) understanding. The words come from the body (gut-level) and it refers to being sensitive and reactive to the people as well as having a plan.

Now that we have named some principles an effective leader may hold, this section will delve more deeply into “how” an effective leader leads effectively. Together, we have created a list of practices we believe are integral to being an effective leader:

  • Lead with transparency – share what you can, whenever you can. This helps build trust and supports shared understanding.
  • Empower instead of “managing” – show your team you trust them to make decisions and take ownership over their work.
  • Facilitate collaborative experiences – promote collaboration and teamwork whenever possible. Encourage communication, feedback, and idea sharing to support mutual respect, productivity, and cooperation.
  • Show you’re a “team member,” not just the “team leader” – lead by example. Demonstrate the team values and expectations in your own work. Some examples of how to do this include:
    • Taking on a project to remain engaged in “the work”
    • Exhibit professionalism
    • Respond to feedback with humility
    • Remain accountable to team norms
    • Be punctual and present
    • Volunteer and/or join other opportunities
    • Etc.
  • Remain engaged in professional and personal development – actively seek opportunities to remain engaged in continual learning to stay updated with expectations and to create a culture of continued development and growth
  • Create opportunities for shared decision-making – whenever possible, allow team members to brainstorm alongside you. Enter meetings without set answers and build decisions together. While this is not always possible, engaging in this when possible allows additional perspectives to be taken into account and increases “buy-in.”
  • Be clear in your feedback – all feedback is not created equally. Ensure your feedback is specific and actionable instead of being “empty praise.”
  • Promote flexibility – adapting to change allows you to evolve and improve in ways that may not be possible in a more rigid environment.
  • Meet adults where they are – understanding the adults on your team supports you in being responsive to their needs. If you recognize each adult’s “way of knowing” (Drago-Severson and Blum-DeStefano, 2016, again),  you can tailor your support to their specific learning styles:
    • For instrumental knowers, feedback feels most supportive and effective when phrased as concrete suggestions, models, and examples.
    • For socializing knowers, feedback feels most supportive and effective when it is offered in a way that appreciates and validates an employee’s contributions.
    • For self-authoring knowers, feedback feels most supportive and effective when it builds upon their sense of competence and expertise.
    • For self-transforming knowers, feedback feels most supportive and effective when it invites shared reflection on the performance of both partners in the feedback loop. 

Throughout this blog we have offered principles and practices to support effective leadership. However, what may be the most integral takeaway is the way we view effective leadership. To be an effective leader, one must use sympathetic intelligence – both their “heart” and “head” to lead members of a team. As Blasé Pascal said, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” Through the use of Sympathetic Intelligence as a leader, you will be more capable of leveraging both the “heart” and the “head.” 

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