2013 Leadership Essay Contest 3rd Prize Winner
Made possible by the generous support of Dr. J. Phillip London and CACI International
The traits the Navy seeks in its leaders, such as forcefulness, determination, will, and integrity, form a familiar and unchanging list.1 It’s time for a new addition: empathy. Rarely, if ever, is it grouped with the attributes of successful naval leaders. The closest term in the Naval Officer’s Guide is “compassion,” which is included in the chapter on leadership.2 Empathy, however, is altogether different. Compassion comes from a Latin root that translates to “sympathy”: a “common-feeling” spurred by the emotions of another. Empathy is something else: the ability to inhabit the thoughts, emotions, and experiences of others without their taking over our own. We need to have a discussion in our wardrooms and messes about it as a component of naval leadership. Developing it is important not only to becoming a good leader, but to remaining one. It keeps us away from the shoals encountered at various points in a naval career, and it helps us remain the best version of ourselves. Rather than requiring yet more difficult or time-consuming training, some easy ways can cultivate empathy among our leaders, both enlisted and commissioned.
Not a One-Way Street
Those with enough time in the Navy have served under both good and bad leaders. Asking why the latter were selected for positions of responsibility is the wrong question, because it assumes good leaders cannot worsen over time. Leadership is not a one-way journey, and we place ourselves at peril to assume our development proceeds in one direction. The problem is not becoming a good leader, it is remaining one. Among all other traits in this regard, empathy is key. It is not only essential to fulfilling our duty to develop and care for subordinates, it is also a powerful vaccine against many maladies that befall those with a track record of success.
We often frame the problem as one of development—we train and educate people to become officers and chiefs through a process defined by milestones and rites of passage. Although the leadership qualities of a midshipman, officer candidate, or chief select do not change the moment he or she is commissioned or advanced, our system behaves as though they do. The very structure of a military career and the up-or-out system that defines it imply a journey of leadership development that is in one direction. Reality is, of course, much more complex. Like the tragic heroes of literature, good leaders can become bad. Two key aspects of military life can subvert the qualities of otherwise good and cause them to fall from their successful path.
First, over the course of a career, the distinction between the means and ends of service can blur. A good number of those who choose military leadership as a profession do so out of unimpeachable motivations: a desire to serve a great cause, a drive to improve the world, and a dedication to preserve certain values. These ends are hard to criticize, but the means that some believe are required to achieve greater consequence as leaders can divert them down questionable paths. Though implicitly wanting to care for more people and serve with greater responsibilities, perceiving leadership as a unidirectional journey causes some to buy into the notion that the only way to progress is through playing a zero-sum game in which there are winners and losers. Under this paradigm, our own teammates become barriers to overcome rather than fellow professionals who can put their shoulders to the wheel alongside us. As time progresses, the means some believe are necessary to achieve their noble goals become more important than the goals themselves and, as others increasingly become obstacles to advancement, the value of all people naturally declines.
Two important flow points in naval careers are the transitions from first-class petty officer to chief petty officer for enlisted sailors and, for officers, department head to command. At both of these stages, the competitive nature of the naval personnel system can undermine the empathy of leaders. Not only can competition breed mistrust between peers at these mid-level stages, but the pressure to excel can also cause leaders to view subordinates as mere instruments toward their success and not as humans requiring understanding. The pressure to succeed saps the empathy critical to fostering a winning command climate and—paradoxically—can lead to failure during inspections or, far worse, during real-world operations where lives are at stake.
Command at Sea
A second factor is the unique challenge of leadership in the sea services, which causes some to shrink from empathy out of fear that it leads to a breakdown of the chain of command. Admirals James Stavridis and Robert Girrier state in Command at Sea: “The successful commanding officer, then, must learn to become as one with his or her wardroom and crew and to truly know their strengths and weaknesses; yet, at the same time, he or she must remain above and apart.”3 This delicate balance is difficult to strike and, when achieved, remains in nearly constant jeopardy. It can lead some to discount empathy because they believe too much of it can undermine the detached judgment required of naval leaders.
To steel themselves against their own feelings and sympathetic response to subordinates in difficult circumstances, some leaders consciously stifle their empathy. Perhaps they avoid the perils of fraternization, but by rejecting empathy along with sympathy, leaders can be come callous, resulting in lower morale and productivity. In reality, we should seek empathy yet remain suspicious of sympathy. Empathetic leaders can understand and account for the potential effects a decision may have on a subordinate, yet remain detached enough to make the hard calls when mission requirements demand them.
The natural environment of the sea services tends to diminish empathy as those in command progress through their careers. Many traits contribute to what we call good leadership, and, just as in the frame of a stable structure, each trait serves as a check on the others. A calibrated balance leads to personalities that can resist the strong inducements toward excesses and misconduct. When leaders begin to neglect empathy, one component of the frame weakens, and the whole edifice of their leadership becomes fragile. As a result, it is doubly important that we talk about the role of empathy, both in developing leaders and in keeping them strong through times of deprivation, stress, and disappointment.
A Key Balancer
We routinely see how periods of success and others of challenge can bias successful leaders toward abusing their positions of power and influence, engaging in fraternization, or succumbing to other damaging behaviors. Empathy can also act to help head off these changes. Several mechanisms seem to work in parallel:
Empathy discourages us from using people, as Immanuel Kant would say, as “mere means.”4 We fail to act as our best selves in such cases, as when a department head views colleagues as obstacles to a competitive fitness report. By cultivating empathy, we become less susceptible to the negative side of our desire to excel—the side that can undermine a command climate, the trust between seniors and subordinates, and the teamwork required to successfully complete most military tasks.
A well-developed sense of empathy actually prevents leaders from undermining the chain of command. Returning to the compassion mentioned in the Naval Officer’s Guide, this trait could also be described as sympathy. It and the “fellow-” or “common-feeling” that it involves is what we seek to avoid as leaders, and is the reason for the existence of fraternization rules. Common feeling between seniors and subordinates can undermine decision-making, create favoritism in perception or in fact, and undermine the chain of command. Empathy, on the other hand, suggests an ability to project ourselves into the minds of others to understand their point of view. Unlike the common feeling of sympathy, there is room for empathetic leaders to remain detached and observe or understand another’s feelings without becoming ruled by them. In this respect, empathy might be better than compassion in terms of naval leadership.
Empathy also allows us to act in a way that conforms to a simple rule of many human-values systems: treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Without empathy, we cannot project our actions on others and ask how he or she would feel about that. Doing so helps us to avoid using others as mere means, and it promotes a grounded world view that allows us to treat well those who are different from us. For example, much of the Navy is composed of young people. Their leaders, on average much older, need empathy to bridge differences in age and experience.
Finally, we expect leaders to engage in critical self-assessment. The legendary Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi admonished his young warriors that “Without knowing others, one cannot really know oneself.”5 By actively trying to inhabit the emotional and cognitive world of those with whom we serve, we heighten our own self-awareness. This is the internal mechanism that allows those in the loneliest position of leadership—command—to keep themselves in check.
Empathy allows naval leaders to act in line with the ethics revealed through human wisdom while resisting both the impulse to use others and the damaging partiality that comes from too much sympathy. Empathy, by focusing on others, frees us to act as our best selves.
Incorporating Empathy into the System
If empathy is a key component of good naval leadership, and if institutional or cultural reasons cause empathetic qualities to decline over the course of a career, then we must seek ways to buttress what both success and challenge threaten to wash away. Perhaps formal training has a role to play, but the two easiest and least costly means of encouraging empathy among naval leaders are engaging in the humanities and reforming the performance-evaluation system.
The best, most readily accessible way to retain or strengthen empathy is to emphasize professional reading. In his essay “Naval Education,” Alfred Thayer Mahan specifically mentions literature in this regard. He states: “If I be asked, in my own words, how the English studies or the acquirements of Foreign Languages help a man to handle and fight his ship, I will reply that a taste for these two pursuits tends to give breadth of thought and loftiness of spirit.”6 Mahan goes on to describe the “ennobling effect” of literature, saying that this effect creates in naval leaders a “capacity for governing men, [and] for dealing with conflicting tempers and interests in a most artificial mode of life.”7
By engaging with familiar characters in a variety of circumstances, literature trains the mind to be able to inhabit the perspective of another, the act essential to empathy. The titles of great naval literature are well known and, beyond fiction, include biographies of naval leaders who demonstrated empathy, such as Zumwalt: The Life and Times of Admiral Elmo Russell “Bud” Zumwalt Jr., by Larry Berman. By placing professional reading at the center of leadership development and giving leaders the time and encouragement to engage with it, the Navy will realize great dividends in terms of preserving empathy under the challenging circumstances of naval service.
While emphasizing professional reading is an easy first step, the long-term solution lies in the performance-evaluation system. We’ve already examined how competition at various points in a naval career, combined with the structure of the system, can diminish empathy. Changing the system to encourage empathy is the only guaranteed way to incentivize better behavior. The Navy is already moving in this direction. A recent message details how performance evaluations for the traits of “Command or Organizational Climate” and “Military Bearing/Character” must account for the service member’s efforts toward a culture of dignity and respect.8
Empathy plays a role in many other evaluated traits, such as “Teamwork,” but the Navy could continue to incentivize leaders by making “Empathy” an evaluated trait, replacing “Command or Organizational Climate.” Because empathetic leaders will, almost by definition, avoid demeaning or degrading work environments, the Navy could continue to promote the behavior and culture demanded by our leadership and by American society while acknowledging the key leadership trait that underpins the command climate of combat-ready units.
The fact that leadership is not a one-way journey is not bad news. The peril comes from our fear and resulting denial of the risk of becoming bad leaders ourselves. By remaining mindful of the fragility of our own leadership, we are freer to seek the means to keep ourselves strong. Empathy is a powerful trait that we can exercise, develop, and maintain over time, and that will keep us strong as naval leaders. The fact that it is not a one-way journey also suggests that those who stray from the path can return again. This fact is a powerful tonic against the zero-defect mentality that runs strong in naval culture. With an emphasis on professional reading, the study of empathetic leaders such Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, and a few changes to the service’s performance-evaluation system, the Navy can ensure that leaders use this trait to keep their units ready to answer all bells, in terms of both sailors and materiel.
3. ADM James Stavridis and RDML Robert Girrier, Command at Sea, 6th ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010), 3.
4. Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, 3rd ed., James W. Ellington, trans. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1993), 30.
5. Kenji Tokitsu, ed., Miyamoto Mushashi: His Life and Writings (Boston: Weatherhill Publications, 2004), 144.
6. Benjamin F. Armstrong, ed., Twenty-first-Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013), 91.
7. Ibid., 92.
8. NAVADMIN 216/13, 28 August 2013.