Views on Listening: empathy


Shirley Wardell is a Leadership Foundation associate, and she works on the Research Team and Future Leader’s programmes. This is the third in a series of blog posts on listening, in which Shirley will be sharing insights from the results of a survey on the participants of the 50 Research Team Leadership programmes that have taken place throughout higher education over the past 8 years. Shirley has been a ‘Thinking Environment ®’ coach and consultant since 1997.

Human beings can imagine what it is like to be in another person’s shoes. Have you ever felt your toes pointing when you are watching dancing or cried watching a film? That is empathy at work: empathy doing its connecting magic. For that moment you are more interested in what is happening for the person that you are observing than you are interested in yourself. The ‘mirror neurons’ that enable us to do that have been observed by neuroscientists and enable us to enjoy stories and to learn by watching.

The participants on our Research Team Leadership courses tell us that when someone listens to them really well they feel the listener’s empathy. describes empathy as: ‘intellectual identification with, or vicarious feelings thoughts or attitudes of another.’ We allow another person to affect us, and that way we are in a relationship. Empathy is the basic building block of healthy relationships – leaders need healthy working relationships.

There is a profound learning opportunity available when you decide to listen and empathise. You are making a decision and an effort to put down your view of the world in order to understand someone else’s view better. You are making your mind flexible, broad and open. When you listen and empathise your mind is in a position to receive a world-view that may conflict with your own.

The appreciation of empathy links Gandhi, Carl Rogers and Roman Krzniac. Carl Rogers describes empathy as a process rather than a state, which I quite like because it suggests something that you go through and experience, rather than something that you are. In training and developing leaders, demonstrating leadership skills such as: coaching styles and difficult conversations, allows observers to have some understanding of the techniques before learning and implementing them.

Roman Krzniac and Gandhi see empathy as something that enables beneficial change. Making change happen is a constant reality for leaders in higher education, so it seems worthwhile to deliberately develop our empathy. There is evidence that empathy can be taught to 98% of people. Roman Krzniac suggests we do the following to build our empathy:

  1. Listen empathically – listen in a way that deepens our understanding of another perspective, rather than reinforces our own perspective.
  2. Get curious about strangers – we are surrounded by thoughts and feelings that we know little about.
  3. Take experiential adventures – find out what it is like to be homeless or to live on a pound a day.
  4. Become a revolutionary – change the fabric of society because we care about others.
  5. Be an armchair traveller – watch documentaries, read books.

As a leader we can’t always choose who we’d like to empathise with or even when we might be able to offer empathy. CS Lewis said: ‘Everyone feels benevolent if nothing annoying is happening to them at the moment.’ Gandhi’s suggestion is the challenge I’d like to extend to leaders, he asks us to be ambitious about whose shoes we would step into.

If I challenge myself by thinking about when I struggle to empathise, it would be when people moan and complain without planning to do anything about what is bothering them. What I can’t see is why those people feel so disempowered to change the things that concern them. If I can’t understand I am probably ill-equipped to be of any help to them and I don’t think I’d be able to lead them very well.

Here is my version of Gandhi’s empathy challenge: ‘What would it mean to stretch your abilities to empathise over the next month?’

Read Shirley’s previous posts on listening here: 1. Listening 2. Appreciated and you can follow Shirley @EvolveLeadteam

My top 10 tips: the leadership qualities of a vice-chancellor

by Dr Mark Pegg

With a deadline coming up, the Times Higher Education called and asked if I could quickly provide a selection of one liners – some quotable sentences to support a piece they were writing on the leadership qualities of vice-chancellors. (Read the THE article here) In crafting my response, I drew on memorable snippets from my own regular conversations with VCs.

The Leadership Foundation’s main aim is to develop leaders – not only VCs, but I do meet them regularly and they are always willing to share. It is such an interesting job and for most they will only get one shot at it and naturally want to be the best they can be.

Many said that they sought advice from mentors before taking over and have thought a great deal about their approach to leading their university or higher education college. We discuss their path to leadership, how they see the important leadership challenges today and look to the future. I think that it is important that the Leadership Foundation learns from them so that we can feed this wisdom into our programmes and other development interventions.

I got to 9 points and then remembered a 10th because a round 10 always seems more memorable. The 10th made it to the back page of Times Higher – you know you have made it when you are quoted in The Poppletonian. These are all things that VCs have said to me.

Many characteristics are those of a good leader anywhere – strategically aware, resilient in the face of criticism, courageous and compassionate – and there is no one size fits all, universities have so many different and distinctive things to do – but there are some common themes:

1. Wake up every morning knowing how lucky you are to have one of the best jobs in the world.
2. Be wise not just clever – brilliance is good, experience and commonsense are also important,
3. Prepare to wrestle with paradoxes – to drive change for the new, but conserve the best of the old
4. Know your own mind, but able to listen and take advice from others
5. Aim to see the value in things not just the price
6. Reflect and reflect again, but also know when to act
7. Be resilient and very patient but be able to up the pace when needed
8. Know what the University is for as well as what it is good at
9. Think global but care about local
10. Have a sense of humour – develop one fast if you don’t – you are going to need it.

Dr Mark Pegg is the vice-chancellor of the Leadership Foundation.

Women and change in higher education: so what’s new?

By Dr Diane Bebbington

Activity appears to be burgeoning both here and abroad aiming to challenge gender inequality in higher education. This is in spite of the fact that women now make up just over half of all undergraduates globally and university workforces are diversifying through knowledge globalisation and the cross-national transference of professionals engaged in academic research. It is remarkable that women are still so poorly represented in the most powerful, decision-making positions of institutions of higher education.

Last week, the universities of Durham and Newcastle hosted a conference Women and Change In Higher Education: Culture and Careers and in June a conference in Brussels – Gender Summit Europe 2014 will convene experts from all over the European Union from research, industry and policy to look at gender in research evidence. A key aim will be to look at how Horizon 2020, the current €80bn funding programme of the European Commission will, under article 15, ‘ensure the effective promotion of gender equality and the gender dimension in research and innovation content’.

So what’s being done? Women are well-represented at undergraduate level in medicine but few make it into professorial positions. By implementing the national Programme for Women Professors and the Pro Exzellenzia Programme, the University Medical Centre Hamburg, Germany, aims to support women’s career prospects through a variety of activities such as providing incentives for organisational change, allocating research time to women doctors and providing personal development through mentoring.

The Leadership Foundation’s Aurora programme is targeted at academic and professional women working in UK universities and seeks to enable them to engage with leadership development at an early stage in their careers. The programme, with four cohorts in Glasgow, Bristol, London and Manchester, has been hugely popular. 580 women have signed up from 100 higher education institutions, well up on the numbers expected and plans are now afoot to run Aurora in Northern Ireland.

Clearly momentum is gathering and two themes emerge from much of the debate. The first is the need to reach out to all women regardless of their differences and the other is to look far more critically at how inequality is perpetuated by the system. Data on women are still rarely disaggregated by race, disability or other ‘differences’. There is much talk about childcare but this often overlooks the experiences of women who are not mothers, but still shoulder the burden of work in the home. When it is reported that 17% of university leaders are women, to which women does this refer? By failing to analyse and publish data in finer detail, women who differ on account of race, disability, and other differences, are effectively being marginalised. Progress can only be made when all efforts to bring about change are truly inclusive.

The second theme is around organisational change. The tendency is to focus on women through developing their leadership potential rather than transforming the organisations in which they work. Rarely is the spotlight turned on those who occupy positions of privilege, yet ironically it is those in such spaces – the leaders of higher education – who are called upon to tackle inequalities. Paradoxically, we are asking a leadership that is relatively homogeneous to champion equality. How much change is likely to happen?

Dr Diane Bebbington is the Leadership Foundation’s diversity advisor.

Views on Listening: appreciated


Shirley Wardell is a Leadership Foundation associate, and she works on the Research Team and Future Leader’s programmes. This is the second in a series of blog posts, in which Shirley will be sharing insights from the results of a survey on the participants of the 50 Research Team Leadership programmes that have taken place throughout higher education over the past 8 years. Shirley has been a ‘Thinking Environment ®’ coach and consultant since 1997.

When David Faraday carefully collected views on listening from around 400 participants on our Research Team Leader’s course, we discovered that feeling ‘appreciated’ took 10th place in the top 10 ways people feel when someone listens to them really well. The findings of the Ken Blanchard Companies supports this view and the encourage leaders to listen far more than they speak:

‘Find out what is in the hearts and minds of your people. Ask for their suggestions and opinions on their work.’

The Research Leaders on our courses tell us that sometimes, when they have something to say, they are worried about taking up their boss’s time. They say that they fear that their boss is too busy to listen to them. They may feel their views are not important and that maybe their ideas are not very good. I find it comforting that ‘just listening’ with a clear mind and a lack of distractions, can dispel some of the fears that are felt by your more thoughtful team members.

What is the listening like that dispels fears and creates a sense of appreciation for the person speaking? Nancy Kline describes it like this:

‘Attention: listening with palpable respect, and genuine interest, and without interruption.’

The lack of interruption here is key and it includes avoiding interrupting with our busy minds. Minds that are working hard communicate just that on our impatient, hurried faces. Five minutes of profound listening takes the same amount of time as five minutes of distracted listening, but is way more effective. It is important for leaders to get really good at listening.

What happens in the mind of the brilliant listener? To me the listener’s mind is open and calm, there is a sense of fascination in the speaker’s way of thinking and a belief that they will find a way forward. The great listener is not mentally solving the problem for the speaker; judging the quality of the thinking or planning lunch. The listener is able create a bubble of calm in a busy world which is an act of appreciation in itself.

Having colleagues that feel appreciated makes a leader’s life a lot easier. People who feel appreciated, like their jobs more, make better decisions and are prepared to do more in order to succeed. When people feel they are appreciated they regard the work environment as supportive and people who work in such environments are ill less often and are less likely to suffer from stress. In an encouraging work place stressful work is regarded as more achievable.

If leaders listen they are likely to create a culture of listening in their teams and that means that support and appreciation comes from other team members as well as from the leader. Shelley E. Taylor suggests that very small interventions in social support go a long way towards fostering a supportive work environment. What can you do to create a culture of listening in your team?


Cracking the PQ code

Dr Mark Pegg reviews Leadership PQ: how political intelligence sets leaders apart.

PQ-book-cover-180 Reffo-Wark1


Reading this book, I realised the golden triangle is also the interface between government, business and society, and there is a surprising gap in our understanding of the way leaders working in this golden triangle relate to each other. Authors, Gerry Reffo and Valerie Wark, associates of Ashridge Business School, set out to fill this gap. They use their own extensive experience of leadership development to offer us fresh thinking and tap into the wisdom of successful leaders to show how we can discover and get in touch with our inner political intelligence.

We know senior leaders should be intelligent, able to call on IQ and, thanks to Daniel Goleman, we understand how our emotional intelligence (EQ) should be part of our leadership style. In this socially networked world, where everybody feels the need to know all about their leaders’ views on everything, there is a further dimension to a leader’s skill set. Leadership PQ helps us to find and fit this missing piece, to complete the jigsaw, and integrate IQ and EQ strategically with political intelligence thus PQ.

These skills have always existed, career civil servants in any society have always ‘known’ how to do PQ, and most successful business leaders have adopted them – but they have done it instinctively because it is built into the culture.

This book sets out to understand these inner mechanisms of PQ – to crack the code – and show how effective PQ skills can be a decider in the competition between leaders of rival organisations in a rapidly changing and increasingly competitive world.

Reffo and Wark analyse what is going in PQ in a highly accessible format. They analyse the key skills and show how leaders can tap into the PQ skill set. The significance of the book is to see how relevant these PQ skills are for senior staff in any context, not only public services, but also in business or not for profit, local, national and multi-national and how to apply these skills successfully for the benefit of their organisations. In the connected and social media savvy world, PQ is increasingly vital for senior leaders ready to respond to the demanding power of public scrutiny and to grasp the political flux that flows inside their own organisations. University leaders will know this territory well.

Leaders with PQ can build a better rapport with their main stakeholders. Consumers know their rights and like to get organised these days. When they see something they don’t like they let you know and leaders need PQ to handle it. Nation states, regulatory bodies and multi-national organisations now take a keener interest in the impact business has on the public and society, not only to regulate and tax, but also as good neighbours through corporate community relations and as custodians of scarce global resources.

This is a practical book – you can browse, put it down, pick it up again – and is full of useful tips, case studies and self-assessment tools. It contains a useful model and I quickly acquired a mental map of it. The authors know this territory well. They have many years’ experience working on the leadership development front line, helping public servants produce better outcomes for their demanding, short-termist political masters and achieve better quality and value for taxpayers and users of public services.

Few will have forgotten Tony Hayward’s highly visible meltdown as chief executive of BP during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill crisis. If only this book had been available then. Here was a talented leader, who seemed unable to read the PQ. If he had, might he have ridden the storm better? Could he even have emerged with his reputation intact? Leadership PQ offers better ways to create a stronger public persona for leaders and, dare I say it, better outcomes for shareholders, customers and taxpayers alike.

Leadership PQ – how political intelligence sets successful leaders apart was published last month and you can review the first chapter here.

Disclosure: Mark Pegg is the chief executive of the Leadership Foundation and was one of the leaders interviewed in Leadership PQ.