The Power of Empathy

I am currently reading “Playing the Enemy” by John Carlin which has been made into a movie called Invictus by Clint Eastwood. The book focuses on how Nelson Mandela uses the game of rugby in 1995 to unite a divided nation when he became the President of South Africa. The book is an interesting read but one leadership lesson I derived from it was the power of empathy. Mandela went to prison a bitter, frustrated and angry young man fighting against a racist regime but came out a wise, empathic old man. In his youth he hated the Afrikaners {white South Africans} and he employed violent tactics against the system but in the confined space of prison, he started to seek to understand the Afrikaners. He spent time on the inside learning the language and the history of the “enemy”.

It was during his time in prison that he was able to empathise with the Afrikaners by understanding their motivations and their fears. His understanding enabled him to deal with the infamous Robben Island prison guards and helped him on his road to freedom and uniting a divided nation. Leaders need to learn how to empathise with both their supporters and critics. Daniel Goleman classified empathy as a key component of emotional intelligence while Stephen Covey describes it as seeking first to understand then to be understood (Habit 5). Empathy requires leaders to put themselves in the shoes of those they are trying to lead and those who are fighting against them. It is a required skill set for leaders who desire to lead effectively.

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