Sympathy or Empathy? How feeling enhances leadership in training
By Oli Wettern
Any aspiring leader should be familiar with the maxim that “no one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care”. The meaning is clear: those that are in your command will listen to you and follow you only when they are confident that you genuinely care about them as individuals and their needs. The Army sets considerable store by the idea that training establishments should embody the gold standard of both leadership and behaviour. The Leadership Code and core values are upheld rigidly with lapses being treated severely, leading to disciplinary action and the potential to be Returned to Unit. While encouraging the highest standards of behaviour, however, one area is neglected – the importance of understanding the trainee. This can, if left uncorrected, lead to a lack of empathy, which in turn can ‘harden’ trainer attitudes and undermine effective training. This is especially the case due to the difference between training environments, where the leadership system requires little to no consent from the trainee, and the Field Army; with their reality of leadership by consent. While this article is hopefully relevant to all Army leaders, it is of particular note for those serving in training establishments. It will begin by seeking to understand empathy and leadership, make the case for the importance of empathy in the training environment, and touch on how empathy can be developed.
Understanding empathy and leadership
Before we continue it is worth drawing out the differences between sympathy and empathy as the two concepts are often used interchangeably. Sympathy is a feeling of shared concern and potentially compassion for another person, for example feeling sorry for another person’s misfortune. Empathy is stronger and is understanding and sharing the feeling of another human; being able to put yourself in their place. We may feel sympathy for the recruit as they crawl through the mud of the bayonet range. But as trainers, it is arguably more important that we feel empathy with the recruit, as they struggle to understand something which appears basic to us. It is this feeling emotion with someone else which can sometimes be lacking – to negative effect – in training environments.
If empathy is so important in effective leadership, we might expect to find mention of it in our handbook on leadership. Yet, the Army Leadership Doctrine is void of any mention of sympathy, and its one passing mention of empathy comes as an afterthought, discussing the “lack of empathy” apparent in toxic leaders (p 80). It appears that our doctrine may presume that empathy is an innate skill of leadership – surprising in a document and culture which otherwise seeks to explore leadership precisely because it views it as a teachable skill. However, while ‘empathy’ may be significant in its absence, our Leadership Doctrine does devote time to discussing ‘understanding’, an undoubted part of empathy. The majority of mentions are of understanding in relation to mission, context, or one’s own strengths and weaknesses, the last of which undoubtedly plays its part in developing empathy. The importance of understanding is also stressed in regard to mission command, which pillars are “trust, mutual understanding and initiative at all levels” (Army Leadership Doctrine p 50). ‘Mutual understanding’ – developed between individuals – is arguably impossible to cultivate without empathy; failure to understand another’s emotions will lead to this understanding breaking down. Empathy does therefore, in an obscured way, lie at the root of mission command, and so should be considered foundational to a good Army leader.
There is an implied ‘contract’ of care in the Chain of Command; the soldiers you serve trust their leader to behave appropriately and in turn the Chain of Command trusts them to carry out required tasks. In the Field Army, this ‘contract’ is the bedrock of the command relationship, since true leadership is always by consent. The idea of those under your command knowing ‘how much you care’, covers a wide range of areas, from the actions you may take on their behalf to your ability to engage in active listening. Soldiers, NCOs or officers have their own experience and knowledge and will only respect a new leader’s if they feel you are showing due care for them.
As a new troop commander, I undoubtedly fell foul of communicating before fully establishing a rapport and was transformed as a leader by coming to understand this. It has become increasingly obvious that the training environment contains a risk as this ‘contract’ is less essential, not least because recruits have no ability to ‘choose’. Whether in basic or advanced phase establishments trainees lack sufficient knowledge, experience or confidence to require trainers to engage in leadership by consent. The training relationship gives the trainer inherent advantage – one Company Sergeant Major notably said that new recruits view their section commander ‘as God’ – a power dynamic which can risk negative training outcomes. Precisely because it is not essential to show ‘how much you care’ as a trainer-leader to get training results, it is doubly important that trainers do care about their trainees, and constantly examine how recruits may be feeling and experiencing training. In doing so empathy – in essence our ability to put ourselves in another’s shoes – becomes an essential part of living the reality of ‘how much you care’ as a trainer.
Empathy in the training environment
The importance of empathy in the training environment cannot be overstated. Field Army leadership, even if faulty at times, has remarkable capacity for flexibility and understanding personal circumstances. A good squadron commander faced with a domestic welfare case, for instance, will have remarkable capacity to arrange compassionate leave in the short term, or to pull strings through the careers officer to ensure a new posting for a solider to be closer to their home. Putting operational requirements to one side, military leadership can show remarkable empathy, and work to meet the needs of a soldier. In addition, especially at regimental duty, any individual will have peers of similar age or stage who will be able to easily empathise with them: putting themselves into their extremely similar shoes, and so being able to understand and assist with problems they may face.
The training environment, by contrast, is one of rigid timetables, where the needs of individual trainees can often become secondary to the needs of the system. The task is simply prioritised over the individual. Rather than being peers of trainees, section commanders have a number of years’ experience and may have forgotten – and so be unable to easily empathise with – the experience of being a brand-new recruit. This is compounded by the truism that the longer an instructor has been in post, the more they may come to view trainees as a collective rather than as individuals. It is arguably through no fault of the instructor but an unforeseen outcome of the training cycle. Each week brings another ‘summative test’ or crucial learning objective, the system places pressure on training teams making it a battle to find time for the individual. To the system, a recruit not attending their Marksmanship Test is a deficit difficult to make up, irrespective of the unique needs of the individual. Pressure from above has a major impact in sapping empathy from the training environment.
This pressure is exacerbated by increasingly full training platoons and quicker turnarounds between courses, with training teams forced to prioritise administration or hitting key objectives. Despite this, making time to understand and empathise with the individual is crucial to getting the most out of them. Without empathy, and the chance to unburden themselves to their section commander, the recruit with a lapsing alcoholic parent may feel they have no option but to Discharge as of Right to care for them. Without empathy the undiagnosed dyslexic recruit may never get the educational help they need to advance their learning, instead marked down as ‘slow’ and ‘having a poor attitude’, and made to repeat training, with an ultimately negative outcome. Without empathy the U18 recruit with a child on the way from a now ex-girlfriend at home, unsupported by their parents, may feel they cannot remain in the Army and perform so badly that their commanders lose interest in training them. The first step in dealing with all of these problems is empathy, making it foundational to effective training leadership.
This focus on empathy is more important because it is becoming a rarer skill. In Geoff Colvin’s 2016 book Humans are Underrated: what high achievers know that brilliant machines never will (Portfolio, London 2016) he discusses the rise of technology and computing power, and the effect it is having on interpersonal interactions. One of his key ideas is that while computers and artificial intelligence may in time replace most or all aspects of human work, we will continue to value the empathy which humans bring. He sees empathy as becoming more important in every aspect of work, and as being the first step to creating meaningful relationships. This should sound familiar from the Army mantra that ‘our people come first’. If Colvin’s point is true of jobs in wider civil society, such as call centre workers or supermarket check-out staff, it must stand in the highly personable work of recruit and initial trade training.
Paradoxically, Colvin argues that a major effect of our use of screens and everyday technology is in reducing our capacity for empathy. At the very time that empathy is becoming an increasingly valued skill, it is also becoming a rarer one. On the face of it the Army might regard empathy as its strong suit, but even the Army is not immune from the intrusion of technology in breaking down personal interactions. Our younger recruits increasingly come from a technology dominated world, with potentially reduced ability to be empathetic. For this reason, and because of added pressures, empathy in the training establishment can be seen as a luxury. It is important that trainers take the extra step in engaging in empathy, not only for training outcomes but in order to ‘lead by example’ and instill empathy in their recruits.
In contrast to those who might argue that empathy is innate, Colvin and others see empathy as a skill which we can develop and learn. Leadership by example, through teaching empathy to recruits through demonstration, has a twofold effect. The recruits get to see empathy in action, a key part of the ‘Demonstrate – Imitate – Practice’ cycle. By their trainers demonstrating care and compassion, seeking to understand and empathise with recruits, the recruits in turn should come to imitate their trainers’ approach, growing into balanced and effective team players and budding empathetic leaders themselves. Trainers, meanwhile – even if initially finding the bid to understand the experience and viewpoint of recruits ‘soft’ or alien – will come to find empathy more and more natural through practice. This virtuous cycle of positive reinforcement, key to developing any trait, will ensure that empathy becomes as much a natural part of Army leadership as applying reward and discipline. In laying strong foundations of empathetic understanding, it should strengthen the entire edifice of leadership and team cohesion when recruits join the Field Army.
A foundation for leadership?
Given pressures on time and attention, it is easy to see how – especially in highly structured training environments – the needs of the individual can become secondary to the task at hand. This can have a negative effect leading recruits to discharge or underperform, but it could be avoided with empathetic leadership. With empathy, leaders and trainers will better understand their trainees and the unique pressures each faces, as well as recalling the generic difficulties any recruit faces in adjusting to military life and learning new skills. The importance of empathy goes beyond the training environment but is vital due to the relative lack of need for ‘consent’ between trainer and trainee compared to the Field Army. The value of empathy, and its increasing importance in a world ever more dominated by technology, mean that it must be viewed as foundational to Army leadership. Developing empathy as a core skill in our training establishments will improve the leaders of tomorrow while developing the leaders of today.
If want another look at the leadership skills you need to be a capable instructor, check out the thoughts of a former Chief Instructor at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in Breaking the Mould – How to Change, Develop and Improve Instruction. A useful summary of Geoff Colvin’s thinking can be found in this review of his book and you can purchase Humans are Underrated: what high achievers know that brilliant machines never will from Amazon.