Power vs Empathy

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership


Empathy Loses:

Studies have shown that participants raised in wealth or positions of power showed fewer neurological markers for compassion. The studies demonstrated that a person arbitrarily appointed as the “boss” started taking advantage of his new role within 30-minutes. In his book, The Power Paradox, Dacher Keltner likened these effects of power to “a form of brain damage, leading us to self-serving, impulsive behavior.”


It’s hard to square the “self-serving” person who is given to “impulsive behavior” with an effective leader. A leader must be

trustworthy. A self-serving person can not, by definition, meet the requirements for being trustworthy since they have their interest at heart rather than the team or company.

An impulsive person acts without learning the details or appreciating the complexity around a given situation. They operate on emotion or a “gut feel.” That is also contrary to the usual attributes of a true leader. Instead, an effective leader listens to all views of a problem, encourages discussion, and then makes a reasoned decision. A good leader is curious about everything and want’s to learn to make better decisions.


A genuine interest in employees, their families, aspirations,  and goals shows the leader’s emotional intelligence and provides additional ideas for rewarding knowledge workers. Business process curiosity will guide the leader’s continuous improvement programs. Of course, this interest in processes must not become micromanagement. It is merely there to drive initiatives and questions in the Intent-based Leadership (IBL) tradition.


Intent-Based Leadership requires understanding where each person is on the seven-run ladder of leadership. And, they are on different rungs depending on the part of the job they are doing. IBL requires that we push authority to where the information is. And, that in turn means giving control away. The ability to move power to where the information first enters the organization relies on the employee demonstrating technical competency and clarity of values and vision.

Leaders who Insist on keeping power to themselves will become the bottleneck in the organization. That will be an unsustainable and unscalable situation.


Holding onto power drives the average leader to focus on the key performance indicators (KPIs) rather than on the employees. With more focus on KPIs and more decisions required of the leader, the team loses sight of the vision and their sense of autonomy.

Our world has gotten very complicated. Therefore, we will require a growing number of specialists and experts. Specialists and experts do not expect us to micromanage them. They expect autonomy. They will likely know more about their area of expertise than the manager, which is how they add value to the organization.


Despite the tendency for power to “kill” empathy, there are examples of leaders with great power developing strong empathy. I believe that powerful leaders develop emotional intelligence by taking a genuine interest in their employees. They walk the corners of their business (perhaps metaphorically), developing relationships with employees at all organizational levels. They are not trying to be a friend, but rather showing their human side.

How do your employees view you as a leader? Do they see your humanity, or are you essentially a task-master. Have the KPIs become the whole reason for existence? Do your knowledge workers believe they have autonomy?

Our companies will need every employee thinking for themselves if we are to thrive in this new economy. Some of us will be digging out of a hole. It would be good if every employee had a shovel.