Bosses and Empathy

CEO John Lilly on why the best leaders think and act like teachers

Posted May 06, 2010

One of the bad and good things about spending a couple years writing a book is the process requires writing and then deleting a huge amount of text.  Yesterday morning, I was reading through some of the scraps from my forthcoming book Good Boss, Bad Boss and I ran into an inspired argument from Mozilla CEO John Lilly, a long-time friend.  I was taken with John's argument that he is most effective at his job when thinks and acts a lot like a teacher.

I wish we could have found a place for this section in the book.  But I've learned (in line with this post quoting Steve Jobs) that if you are an author (or do any other kind of creative work) you not only have to discard a lot of bad ideas, you also have to get rid of a lot of good ideas -- otherwise there is too much complexity in the final product and you can't focus your full energy on what matters most.  So every author ends up deleting things he or she loves, and this is one of my favorite "discarded darlings" from Good Boss, Bad Boss.

This excerpt reflects multiple emails where John and I exchanged revisions to reach a point where the text reflected both of our beliefs on the subject:

'John reports that to be an empathetic boss, he has learned to devote close attention to his little facial expressions, off-hand comments in emails and conversations, and seemingly trivial things like whether he acknowledges people when passing them in halls.  John went on to explain that this becomes easier when he adopts what might be called a follower-centered mindset:

  “Life is a lot better when think about my job as one of helping everyone be good, helping everyone learn whatever they need, and teaching where I've got experience and expertise. When I think in terms of helping people learn to be even better, it automatically puts me into an empathetic mode (because teaching, fundamentally, is about understanding where the learner is coming from), and that sets up the interaction really well.  I can't always stay in this teaching mode. Sometimes there are real pressures and things I need to deliver on.  Sometimes external stressors in my life cause me to forget to be empathetic. But usually now I can notice when it's happening and correct it.”

As John and I talked, we realized that – whether it is a big important meeting or the most trivial conversation, email, or blog post – the best bosses seem to keep asking themselves: “Why am I doing this? Is it because I am on an ego trip and trying to get more goodies and glory for myself?  Or is it really the best thing for enhancing my people’s collective performance and humanity?”

When bosses can honestly answer the question with a “yes” (and peers, bosses, and followers concur with their assessment), good things happen.  People do good work. They experience dignity and pride in each other.'

I am so struck by this comment from John that I want to repeat it: "When I think in terms of helping people learn to be even better, it automatically puts me into an empathetic mode (because teaching, fundamentally, is about understanding where the learner is coming from)."  I believe he is talking about a hallmark of the most admired and effective bosses.

What do you think of this view of leadership?  Does it strike you as right?  Or is it too idealistic?

P.S.  Many of you may know Mozilla as the company that produces Firefox, the open source web browser used by some 300 million people in the world and that has about 20% of the market in the United States -- and is translated into some 140 languages.  Mozilla is an interesting company in that it is a for-porfit company that is wholly owned by a non-profit foundation.  And although it has grown from about 15 employees to several hundred since John arrived about five years ago, much of the coding and bug detection is still done by volunteers and people who work for other companies. So it is different than other organizations in that, although it is quite profitable and pays its people well, there are no stock options and there is a stronger expectation of employee participation than in most organizations (see this interview if you want to learn more).