Time for the Bold Empath in Business Leadership

"She wants its 130,000 employees to get over the past, take more initiative, become more fearless and be more frank and impatient with one another to ratchet up performance... 'Terminal niceness,' is how she describes an aspect of Xerox's culture, during her all-hands speech." -Xerox's New Chief Tries to Redefine Its Culture, New York Times, February 20, 2010

These words caught my attention two years ago and I've not forgotten them since. They were written in a profile of Ursula Burns, who'd just taken the helm at Xerox. Something surprised me about her frank assessment and its focus on the cultural hang-ups of the organization rather than the bottom line. What struck me was the dawning of something new, a fresh archetype in business leadership. Quite outside the common portrayal of corporate executives as heroes, visionaries, revolutionaries, mediators, politicians, or crooks... Ms. Burns was radiating qualities I'd ascribe to a bold empath.

In the two years since the publication of the article, the landscape of leadership has changed dramatically and evidence suggests we're just at the beginning of a new paradigm. Talk of fearlessness, the power of love, vision and purpose, David Brooks' class at Yale on humility, John Mackey's Conscious Capitalism, the concept of Creating Shared Value from Harvard... there is a shift underway from the head to the heart.

What's so prescient about Ms. Burns' sentiment -- based on her years of observation as an employee and then executive at the company -- is how it captures the real essence of heart-based leadership. It's a genuine wish for an evolution in the culture to a higher order of being, even if what's required to get there is scary, uncomfortable, and maybe even a little personal. It's tough love.

The bold empath is a character we're all familiar with outside the business world: the demanding guru pushing the student beyond his/her perceived limits, the unflinching sensei, the locker room coach delivering the game-changing speech, a war-time general taking troops into the unknown. Delivered without love, these techniques can be unduly harsh, with it they are the embodiment of the heart's true nature and the key to personal and organizational evolution.

The bold empath brings heart without sentimentality, which should appeal to those more traditional business leaders who are sensing the shift into a heart-based business culture and are concerned it might turn their workforce soft. Quite the contrary. Anyone who's ever done work opening his/her own heart knows it's not for the faint of heart. The heart only opens to those who are worthy of entry and you become worthy through intentional suffering-facing your fears, acknowledging your shame, speaking your truth, and being receptive to the needs of others.

Ms. Burns was right to invoke fearlessness at the outset of this journey towards being a less nice and more effective organization. Fear is the default mode of most adults and the worst impediment to an empowered, creative, purposeful workforce. We hardly recognize fear anymore, we've given it so many faces. Anger is fear. Boredom is fear. Apathy is fear. Depression is fear. Frustration is fear. Most heaviness in the human condition is tied to some aspect of fear. Shed fear and you can fly.

In recent memory, there have been few bold empaths in the business elite, the times have demanded different qualities. But, as the call to evolve commerce to its next incarnation grows, as the call to awaken the heart becomes more urgent, we will see the emergence of more bold empaths... leading us by example and loving force to those places that must be seen and explored for progress to happen. Not new markets or modes of commerce, but the deepest resources of our own hearts where fear has taken up residence. If it is true that the times produce the leader, this is what the times demand now.