Why people worry about dearth of empathy in leadership

Multitude of people.
Multitude of people used to illustrate the story. [Photo credit: Christ for all Nations]

Why did the governor collapse after a powerful speech? The tough-talking state governor collapsed as he stormed out of his car on his return to the expansive government house, throwing the place into pandemonium.

“Doctor, Doctor,” his aides yelled as the 70-year-old UK-trained doctor stumbled out of his car to save the life of his boss.

“Fast to the Federal Medical Centre,” he shouted at the driver after checking the governor’s pulse, after the ADC assisted in laying the governor carefully in the back seat. There was no ambulance around for the governor fondly called “The Strongman.”

As they scurried off, the aides wondered what must have happened. For over an hour the governor delivered a thunderous speech that held his audience spellbound. Never before had the governor spoken so passionately about poverty in the state ‎and distress from months of unpaid salaries and pension.

“Most of you know my background; I have tasted poverty so I know it,” he had said, sending the mini-stadium into a grave yard silence. The people were confused about how to react to that.

But he had planned the speech carefully. “Never again will I see my people suffer poverty, lack of medical care and poor education,” he had continued.

“The opposition who say I am heartless should wait for this: today marks the end of mass poverty in the state because I have been touched by the death of Peter, a teacher who died last week because he had no money to go to the hospital. By the end of the month, all salary arrears will be paid in full, and every poor family will be paid some stipend for a better life.”

The stadium roared with joy.


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The following day, news leaked that the governor had collapsed from exhaustion after approximately 65 minutes of pretending to be a human being with empathy.

“In all my years of practicing medicine, I have never met a leader as healthy and vigorous as the governor,” a doctor was reported to have said. “But the sustained effort of simulating compassion proved too much for someone who had never exercised that part of his brain for empathy before.”

“If you have never spent a moment thinking about a human being besides yourself, imagine trying to pretend you are doing that for a solid 65 minutes,” the doctor was reported to have explained. “It’s physically punishing.”

A brain scan showed that his brush with human feelings, which he hadn’t done for years caused severe strain in the part of his brain that evokes empathy – it was a kind of overload.

This is an adaptation of a satire on President Trump by Andy Borowitz, a New York Times best-selling author, after the President’s State of the Union Address last week.

If Trump is said to lack empathy, many leaders in Nigeria are perhaps worse. Around the country, much of the ongoing murmuring is why some of our leaders have become rock-hearted, or plain wicked. What happened to that part of their brain that produces empathy?


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While some state governors live in disgusting opulence, eat choice food and drink expensive wine, build mansions with the peoples’ money, some 13 states owe their workers unpaid salaries. How does a poor teacher who has not been paid for 12 months survive? Yet the governors are able to sleep soundly, without any feeling of guilt and talk down on their people, or hire thugs to attack them when they protest. What happened to empathy?

What happened to empathy when leaders are busy stockpiling money and building mansions instead of building people?

What happened to empathy in an era of widespread kidnappings and ritual murders and killing of innocent people?

Where is empathy where many people are out to take advantage of others? What happened to the culture of being our brother’s keeper? Some people say if some Nigerians are written into the story of the Good Samaritan as the fourth man who saw the man robbed and in pains by the roadside, they would take what was left of the victim and push him down the slope.


Empathy, a fine human nature, is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective; placing one’s self in their shoes to feel what they are feeling. Empathy is known to increase prosocial (helping) behaviour. It is clear from current circumstances that even some of our leaders lack empathy, so what do we expect from people down the line?

Yet many studies have shown that empathy, caring for other, is mutually beneficial. According to Joseph Mercola, empathy has the following features:

· Empathy has complex neurological underpinnings that control the way our brains help us to care about other people.

· Humans have “mirror neurons” that react to others’ emotions and reproduce them; a deficit in mirror neuron receptors has been suggested as an explanation for narcissism and neurotic behaviors.

Why it is Beneficial to Practice Empathy

· According to scientists, beyond stress relief, it is important to be empathetic for the following reasons: People who practice it:

· Are more likely to treat the people they care about the way they wish to be treated.

· Understand the unspoken parts of communication with others.

· Are able to more accurately predict the actions and reactions of people they interact with.

· Experience the world in higher resolution as you perceive through not only your perspective but the perspectives of those around you.

· Better understand the needs of people around them

· Will find it easier to deal with the negativity of others if they can better understand their motivations and fears.

· Have less trouble dealing with interpersonal conflict both at home and at work.

· Have less trouble dealing with interpersonal conflict both at home and at work.

· Will more effectively convince others of their point of view.

· Are less likely to be wicked or lose their humanity.

· It has been discovered that teenagers who are empathetic tend to be more purpose-driven and they intentionally succeed in their academics, not because they are looking to make good grades, but in most subjects their goal is to understand the subject material and to utilize the knowledge as one of their ever-increasing tools.

· Also, teenagers who are more empathetic do a much better job in embracing failure, because there is little ego involved in their tasks; setbacks and disappointments are rarely seen as failures; they are rather seen as a learning experience about an approach that does not work for the task at hand.”

Why people lack empathy

Clearly, people who are able disuse the part of the brain for empathy, created by God for a reason, are people or leaders who lack the fear of God. A governor who impoverishes the people he governs is no different from a person who eats the food he has been given by a travelling parent for the feeding of his kids. That is sheer wickedness, which is only possible in the absence of empathy.

Some of these people who do not know God are just hard-hearted, without necessarily being wicked. Enoch Adeboye, leader of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, was in this group before he gave his life to Jesus.

He explained his experience himself: “I used to be very hard-hearted. I just couldn’t help it. I happened to be the favourite son of my Dad and Mum. I loved my Dad and I mean I really loved him but when he died, I couldn’t cry. I wanted to cry but tears just wouldn’t come.

“It was terrible and I was embarrassed because I really wanted to express some emotion. When the tears failed to flow, I resorted to dipping my finger into my mouth for some saliva to make some marks on my cheeks. That’s how terrible the situation was.

“Then I met the Lord Jesus Christ and I cried out to Him for a heart of flesh.

“Today, if as we are worshipping God or praying, and a picture of a crying congregant is shown on the screen, before I know what is happening, I would be crying too because my heart of stone has been removed and has been replaced with a heart of flesh.

“Some people see me now and say, ‘You seem to find it so easy to do the will of God.’

”It looks so because He has given me a heart of flesh and then, of course, I constantly cry to the one who lived an absolutely Holy life to help me to do what He had done.”

There are still leaders in this time and age who suffer from the primitive acquisition syndrome. Sheer greed! They shamelessly grab state resources meant for the upkeep of the people. Greed kills empathy.

Many leaders try to be quick fixers, perhaps because of a superiority complex. Without listening to people in pains, they rush solutions, irrespective of their efficacy. Leaders are supposed to listen out to the people and even ask questions for better understanding before they rush solutions. Many leaders tend to be in a rush to nowhere.

Some leaders are so obsessive with their personal goals that they see problems of others as threat to their progress. They therefore have the tendency to be defensive; and even blame people for being their own enemies.

Of course, there are leaders who speak more than they listen. Empathy takes time and listening is key to the process. Leaders who listen 2-5 times more than they speak when you meet with people, are said to be far better, more compassionate leaders.

According to reports, in a white paper delivered to the Society of Industrial Organizational Psychology Conference, William Gentry, Todd Weber and Golnaz Sadri argued “transformational leaders need empathy in order to show their followers that they care for their needs and achievement; authentic leaders also need to have empathy in order to be aware of others; and that empathy is also a key part of emotional intelligence that several researchers believe is critical to being an effective leader,” and “our results reveal that empathy is positively related to job performance.

What it takes to be an empathetic leader.

According to Ray Williams, author and president of a firm in Canada that provides executives, “Kind and compassionate leaders:

· Have greater levels of self-awareness;

· Are open-minded and open-hearted;

· Regulate their emotions, particularly in crisis or stressful situations;

· Intentional respond to highly charged situations and people, rather than impulsively reacting;

· Lead by example, rather than by direction;

· Remove or decrease judgment and criticism of others as a motivational strategy;

· Are mindful to the effect their words and actions have on others;

· Spend a greater amount of time being emotional observers of others, rather than most of the time being initiators;

· Are sensitive to others’ feeling and emotional states with their hearts, and not just spending most of the time in their heads in rational thought;

· Are empathetic and compassionate listeners, not just active listeners;

· Demonstrate vulnerability and a willingness to admit mistakes.

Common painkillers that kill empathy

As a proof that there is a section of the brain that produces empathy, some popular painkillers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen have been found to reduce people’s empathy, dull their emotions and change how people process information.

A new scientific review of studies suggests over-the-counter pain medication could be having all sorts of psychological effects that consumers do not expect.

Not only do they block people’s physical pain, they also block emotions.

The authors of the study, published in the journal Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, write: “In many ways, the reviewed findings are alarming. Consumers assume that when they take an over-the-counter pain medication, it will relieve their physical symptoms, but they do not anticipate broader psychological effects.”

Taking over-the-counter painkillers changed how people’s brains processed information, how they experienced emotions and reacted to emotional events, the authors found.

Other studies also showed this dulling of emotions in different ways. People respond more moderately to unpleasant photographs after taking these painkillers — suggesting reduced sensitivity.

People taking acetaminophen also made more errors while trying to process information.

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