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The Empathic Leader:. A New Dynamic for School Improvement Michele W. Atkins, Ph.D. Ann H. Singleton, Ed.D. Union University Jackson, Tennessee. Underlying Questions. Why are you a school leader? What are the characteristics of an effective leader? What are the goals of education?

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The empathic leader

The Empathic Leader:

A New Dynamic for School Improvement

Michele W. Atkins, Ph.D.

Ann H. Singleton, Ed.D.

Union University

Jackson, Tennessee

Underlying questions

Underlying Questions

  • Why are you a school leader?

  • What are the characteristics of an effective leader?

  • What are the goals of education?

  • Do we really want to produce good people?

  • What are the characteristics of a successful learner?



  • Support for a New Paradigm of Leadership

  • Characteristics of the Successful Leader

    * moving from authority to influence

  • Influence for Change

    * “the snowball effect”

  • Characteristics of the Successful Learner

The problem at hand

The Problem at Hand

  • There is a myth that an organization can find salvation through efficient management.

  • Thus, the model of leadership is one of omnicompetence: the skilled classroom practitioner plus curriculum leader, plus technical expert, plus all the manifestations associated with being the figurehead.

  • It is no wonder that so many leaders in education seek early retirement or suffer a range of work-related illnesses.

It s time for a change

It’s Time For a Change

  • Being a successful leader is not about making sure the busses run on time or managing teachers & students; leadership is about relationships & service.

  • Most schools are essentially archaic in organizational terms, resembling classic bureaucracies which, by definition, lack flexibility, adaptability, and the potential to be transformed. (West-Burnham, 1997)

It s time for a change1

It’s Time For a Change

  • The world is not linear, rather, complex and chaotic. There is no predictability.

  • Likewise, each child in each class is a variable, made up of a complex range of variables that determine how they might learn.

It s time for a change2

It’s Time For a Change

  • Equally, every school leader spends most of his/her time managing unpredictability, yet this is rarely reflected in role descriptions, the deployment of time, organizational structures, etc.

  • Schools are demanding places to work (for adults and children) because individuals have to live in a state of permanent tension between the superficial simplicity of management and the deep complexity of learning and leading. (Wheatley, 1992)

It s time for a change3

It’s Time For a Change

The language of leadership must be changed to reflect the unpredictable and chaotic world in which leaders can lead and children can learn.

A new way to lead

A New Way to Lead

Dad once looked down at an assembly line of women and thought, “These are all like my own mom – they have kids, homes to take care of, people who need them.” It motivated him to work hard to give them a better life because he saw his mom in all of them. That’s how it all begins – with fundamental respect and empathy.

Bob Galvin, CEO

Speaking of his father, founder of Motorola

Characteristics of effective leaders leadership reconsidered 2000

Characteristics of Effective LeadersLeadership Reconsidered (2000)

  • Commitment

  • Competence

  • Self-knowledge

  • Authenticity

  • Empathy

  • These characteristics become interrelated. When we are not empathic leaders, others around us stop being authentic, stop bringing talent and energy into the workplace, and stop using feelings to support personal work-related goals (Cooper & Sawaf, 1997).

46% of those who quit their jobs last year did so because they felt unappreciated.

U.S. Department of Labor

Importance of being an empathic leader

Importance of Being an Empathic Leader

  • Many researchers agree that empathy is a key ingredient in the success of a leader:

    • Sperry (in NASSP Bulletin, 2000)

    • Goleman (in Harvard Business Review, 1998)

    • Ferri (in Innovative Leader, 1997)

    • West-Burnham (in School Leadership & Management, 1997)

    • Howard Gardner (known for his theory of multiple intelligences

The empathic leader

A human being is part of the whole, called by us the “universe.” He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is kind of a prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Albert Einstein

How do i lead with empathy

How do I Lead with Empathy?

  • Adopt a new mind set: Teachers don’t work for administrators, administrators work for teachers and teachers work for students.

  • Understand that rationality and reason (the archaic organization management tools) are no more than structures, and structures best suit those whose talents lie in manipulation.

  • Let’s learn from the business world…….

The empathic leader

The new model of business intelligence treats people, markets, ideas, and organizations as unique and alive, inherently capable of change, interaction, synergy, and growth.

Leaders who are more attuned to intuitive information (more empathic) will have more influence than others who are not.


The Bureaucratic Leader focuses on exerting influence through the external pursuit of power and control. The Empathic Leader is more inner directed and can access a wider range of competencies, thereby creating a form of influence that is very powerful.

The empathic leader

If you look to lead, invest 40% of your time managing yourself – your ethics, character, principles, purpose, motivation, and conduct. Invest at least 30% managing those with authority over you, and 15% managing your peers. Use the remainder to induce those you ‘work for’ to understand and practice these principles. I use the term ‘work for’ advisedly, for if you don’t understand that you should be working for your mislabeled ‘subordinates’, you haven’t understood anything.

Dee Hock, CEO

VISA International

Influence for change

Influence for Change

  • We must fight the tendency to externalize our problems – insisting that it is others who need to change. If we want to make change happen, we must first change our self and others will change along with us.

If you keep to one corner and neglect the myriad aspects of the totality, if you take one thing and discard the rest, then what you attain will be little and what you master will be shallow.

Lao Tzu – 6th Century B.C.

The empathic leader

A leader’s true power is not the capacity to destroy but the ability to influence others.

John Kotter

Professor of Leadership, Harvard University

The Empathic Leader acknowledges the other person’s competence and value, thereby creating an atmosphere of reciprocal giving. When people feel they give more to a relationship than they get in return, they feel distress and typically either reduce inputs (come in late, miss meetings, gossip, careless work), increase complaints (ask for transfers or better working conditions), or end the relationship.

10 attributes of the empathic leader or executive emotional intelligence ryback 1998

Nonjudgmental attitude










10 Attributes of the Empathic Leader(or Executive Emotional Intelligence; Ryback, 1998)

  • See handout for a detailed description of each attribute

Characteristics of a successful learner jones 1990

Characteristics of a Successful Learner(Jones, 1990)

  • Knowledge

    • Critical and creative

  • Motivation

    • To learn and confidence in themselves as learners

  • Tools and strategies

    • For acquiring, evaluating, and applying knowledge

  • Empathy

    • Insight into the motives, feelings, and behavior of others, and the ability to communicate this understanding

Why is it important for students to possess empathy

Why is it Important for Students to Possess Empathy?

  • Empathy is the underlying foundation of social intelligence (Mead, 1934)

  • Empathy was found to be significantly related to self-esteem (Davis, 1983)

Why is it important for students to possess empathy1

Why is it Important for Students to Possess Empathy?

  • Many juvenile offenders have been found to lack empathy skills.

  • A component of emotional intelligence, EQ is more important than IQ in predicting job success (Goleman, 1995)

Why is it important for students to possess empathy2

Why is it Important for Students to Possess Empathy?

  • Empathy seems to be related to developmental maturity, that is, cognitive, social, and moral development(Atkins, 1999; Bowman & Reeves, 1987; Eisenberg et al., 1991; Eisenberg-Berg & Mussen, 1978; Kurdek, 1981)

  • Scores on measures of empathic understanding were found to be significantly related to GPA(Bonner & Aspy, 1984)

Why is it important for students to possess empathy3

Why is it Important for Students to Possess Empathy?

  • Schools that have programs designed to increase empathy have higher scores than comparison school on measures of higher-order reading comprehension (Kohn, 1991)

So can we create empathic learners in my school sure you can

So, Can We Create Empathic Learners in My School?Sure you can!

  • Talk to the students about acts of caring that you have seen.

  • Ask students to reach out to others that are having an extremely hard time.

  • Use storytelling to teach significant values of caring.

So can we create empathic learners in my school sure you can1

So, Can We Create Empathic Learners in My School?Sure you can!

  • Engage in service projects – allow the students to decide the nature and implementation of the projects – that are linked to curriculum (this creates the sense of “activism”, the power to make life better for others)

  • Pin paper leaves to a big tree in the hall, each acknowledging an act of kindness

So can we create empathic learners in my school sure you can2

So, Can We Create Empathic Learners in My School?Sure you can!

  • Work through problem solving process of conflicts – talk about what happened, why, how it felt to the other person, how to do it differently next time, and what the restitution should be.

  • Tell students to let you know if you say something that humiliates or hurts them in any way.

Does it work

Does it Work?

When children feel safe, cared about, and relaxed they will learn more, not less. Our children are able to grapple with higher-order thinking questions because they don’t face the petty disturbances that arise in mainstream schools. We resolve conflicts as they come up, thereby reducing the children’s distractions.

Schlossman, Principal

The empathic leader

Here's the Catch:

Do As I Do, Not Just As I Say

Research indicates that when educators model desired

empathic behaviors, children are more likely to adopt these

behaviors themselves than when they are merely told to

behave in a certain manner.

The empathic leader

Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness. Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, What are you doing for others?

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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