Hile Rutledge
Trainer, author

Hile Rutledge

CEO and owner of OKA (Otto Kroeger Associates), a training and consulting firm specializing in leadership and team development.


Feel my pain, please!

Q: In a remarkable reversal of fortune, D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty was solidly defeated in his quest for a second term, after a landslide victory four years ago. Many voters liked the changes in the city; they just didn't like Fenty. How important is personality in the quest for success? Are good ideas and an ability to get things done enough?

So Fenty lost the primary for mayor of Washington, D.C. Voters liked many of his accomplishments but not the man. They liked the man four years ago, but no longer. What has changed?

Leaders are always more effective when their followers like them. A personal connection and affection don't create leadership or make an ineffective leader competent, but they sure do cement the bond a leader has with her followers and increase the leader's ability both to weather storms and to motivate those being led. Leaders are better off if you like them, but what makes you like any given leader? It's a complicated question, but one of the answers is certainly empathy.

Empathy refers to the degree to which we each notice, care about and even connect with the emotional states and needs of others. People with high, or active, empathy are or appear to be interested in us, concerned, sensitive and sympathetic. Low empathy comes across as inattentive, unfeeling, callous and even selfish. When leaders use their empathy, those they lead feel heard, affirmed and emotionally understood, which in turn buys considerable loyalty and support.

In the socio-political tumult of 1968, it was Richard Nixon's acknowledging the fear of chaos, violence and disorder -- the collective's shared emotional state -- that won him the presidency. In 1980, Ronald Reagan tapped into our collective emotional yearning for national pride and optimism, creating the Reagan landslide.

Bill Clinton's expressed empathy -- "I feel your pain" -- won him the supporters needed to claim the White House in 1992, and it was George W. Bush's expression of potent but poignant anger atop the smoldering rubble of the collapsed World Trade Center buildings in 2001 that earned him the approval of over 90 percent of the American electorate.

People want their feelings noticed and even justified. The leader who acknowledges and shares the feelings of those he leads has tapped into a powerful dynamic.

2010 finds 1 out of 10 Americans unemployed and a critical mass of us feeling insecure about our own finances and futures. These socio-economic realities exist amid a backdrop of a venomous political climate news media in which there is little room for compromise, collaboration or harmony -- in which optimism appears naive and cynicism passes unchallenged for realism.

Anger and fear are the moods of this political day, which is why the candidates who are finding success so far are those most effectively giving voice to this populist rage. When Americans see Barack Obama -- cool, collected and focusing on the good news of the day, and this emotionally does not resonate with our feelings, our collective reaction is not to change our minds and reconsider our emotional state, but to decide the leader is out of touch.

You want to lead me? Know me, like me and agree with me. Convince me you feel what I feel, and I'm yours.

By Hile Rutledge  |  September 20, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Making change Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: A pebble in the pond | Next: Charisma


Please report offensive comments below.

To be clear, many voters neither liked Fenty's agenda nor did they like him. In fact, I think ppl felt disrespected by his dismissive, autocratic style.

Where the author is correct is how leaders need to show EMPATHY -- esp in politics. A policy maker may disagree with voters but if they show concern and perhaps even offer alternative policy options, voters are more likely to stick around.

Posted by: bosslady1 | September 20, 2010 5:18 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Politics 101 - People love results! However, if a Leader fails to become a consensus builder and creates an environment of inclusion,you become an ineffective Leader. Leaders MUST connect and show empathy to the people that they are leading. This may sound minor, but trust me, it works. Bill Clinton is a perfect example, througout all his political controversies (Monica Lewinski), because folks were emotionally connected to his Leadership style, the Electorate overwhelmingly stood by him. It's simply math. Results + Inclusion = Success! In Fenty's case: Results - Inclusion = Election Loss.

Posted by: Rahimbriggs | September 20, 2010 12:25 PM
Report Offensive Comment

"You want to lead me? Know me, like me and agree with me. Convince me you feel what I feel, and I'm yours."

I slightly disagree. A leader doesn't have to like or agree with people. He has to communicate this thoughts, engage, listen and persuade. He has to communicate that he understands people's point of view and discuss how his plan addresses it. Fenty did not do that.

Posted by: dproctor06 | September 20, 2010 11:08 AM
Report Offensive Comment

Post a Comment

characters remaining

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company