[L – Letting go] Taking a ‘CALM’ approach to leaderful practices

For those not yet familiar with the ‘CALM’ framework, it includes the practice of being:

  • C – Collaborative: engaging openly and transparently with other staff to plan and develop (internal or external) work products.
  • A – Anticipatory: planning effectively using agile methods, being aware of relevant data (through analysis and reporting) and building in a process for feedback.
  • L – Letting go of Command and Control Leadership and Embracing Collective Leadership: locating and enabling leaders at all levels whilst developing a shared sense of decision-making and accountability – demonstrating leaderful actions.
  • M – Mindful: making time and space to reflect on information and decisions.

The ‘CALM’ framework, as introduced in the Culture24 Pathways resource and case studies, comprises practices encouraging the identification and development of leaderful practices. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many museums struggled to consider co-leadership models or the dismantling of traditional organizational hierarchies to foster and give voice to leaders at all levels and in all areas of the organization. It is time we took a ‘CALM’ approach to embed practices in our organization that involve the entire workforce in leadership activities. 

In the ‘One by One’ Digital Forum workshop held virtually on June 8, 2020, the ‘One by One’ research team considered the relationship between directorial and digital leadership in museums, and how a more integrated approach might be developed between the two in order to improve overarching strategic direction. We asked: how can digital leaders achieve greater agency and autonomy in museums? Panelists included Effie Kapsalis (Senior Digital Program Officer American Women’s History Initiative, Smithsonian Institution, US), and John Stack (Digital Director, Science Museum Group, UK). 

In this initial public discussion and in the subsequent micro-interventions designed with our US and UK museum partners, participants homed in on the need for leaders to communicate and collaborate (in-person and across digital) in a more empathetic way. 

We asked Effie Kapsalis (Senior Digital Program Officer American Women’s History Initiative, Smithsonian Institution, US), Sara Synder (Chief, External Affairs and Digital Strategies, Smithsonian American Art Museum, US), John Stack (Digital Director, Science Museum Group, UK), and Rob Cawston (Head of Digital Media, National Museums Scotland, UK) to reflect on what it means to practice empathetic leadership.  

Q1: How would you define an empathetic leader?

“I’d see it as an approach to working with colleagues and understanding their motivations, what is important to them, and using this knowledge to build connections across the organisation to collaborate effectively on shared goals.”

John Stack

“An empathetic leader is an active listener and humble guide, someone who takes the time to both teach and learn. They understand and accept the boundaries and limitations that come with being a full human being, and not just a “worker.”  Their leadership comes from inspiring loyalty and motivating colleagues by setting an example, rather than by decree. They are vulnerable enough to seem human, but also principled and dedicated enough that they set a standard that others naturally aspire to.”

Sara Snyder

“Quoting Brené Brown: “Empathy fuels connection” so an empathetic leader would be one who is, first and foremost, seeking to make connections (with colleagues, audiences). They use a deeper understanding of motivations (of individual, organisational) to focus on the important actions. For me, an empathetic leader is one who can identify where to focus time and effort in both individual and collective contexts. I agree with Sara above about motivations and unlocking the drive and passion in people without leading by decree.”

Rob Cawston

“I love the answers already here. An empathic leader takes time to see, understand, and publicly express organizational and individual cultures and lived experience. While acknowledging differences, an empathic leader also seeks to find common ground in order to move the group and its individuals towards a higher purpose/mission.”

Effie Kapsalis

Q2: How does one practice being an empathic leader?

“Take time to understand colleagues disciplines. What is important to them? What worries them? At what pace do they like to work? How do they like to collaborate? What language do they use that you need to understand?”

John Stack

“The empathetic leaders I admire take time with their colleagues: time to listen and get to know their motivations, time to ask questions, time to understand their personalities and processes. They spend the effort to understand the big picture for the organization as well as the immediate issues, apprehending the long term and short term needs. They then use that knowledge and relationships they have built to identify the crux of a problem or challenge, and build a sense of collective effort in getting the solution in place.  They make collaboration feel effortless because they take so much time up front to establish trust and a sense of team bonding.  They don’t participate in divisive practices, like gossip or criticizing behind others’ backs. They take the high road, assume good faith when a mistake occurs, forgive and forget when someone slights them, and they never forget that everyone is fighting their own secret battles that their co-workers may know nothing about.  Even when they might not agree with you, they take the time to understand and respect your perspective.”

Sara Snyder

“I struggle a little with the term as it could be easy to conflate with personality types e.g. some people may find it naturally harder to display empathetic traits of open communication, recognising emotion etc. However, this shouldn’t distract from the core qualities of empathetic leadership and what we should see as good practice in leadership roles. It maybe good to pin some of the definitions/principles of Empathetic Leadership to the characteristics/actions we’re setting out for a Digital Guide (e.g. being aware of surroundings, knowing what to worry about, stepping back to let others take credit, communicating needs and impact, connecting with others) as well as mapping on some areas of practice (e.g. human-centred design).”

Rob Cawston

“Asks a lot of questions, listens, reflects, and sometimes speaks the hard truths that others don’t feel they have power to express. An empathic leader makes space for differing opinions. An empathic leader works from the possibility of others, not the deficit of others. An empathic leader tries to create more transparency. An empathic leader can be vulnerable and admit when he/she/they doesn’t know. An empathic leader owns being wrong sometimes.”

Effie Kapsalis

Q3: Why is empathy important in leaders right now?

“Collaboration across disciplines feels really important as a way to achieve things, especially in museums which can be very siloed working environments. I’ve seen people who can work around the silos and just get things done by collaborating in a limited way which I think gives them results (often celebrated by management!) but tends not to lead to systemic change. On top of this is Covid-19 and people are struggling with juggling children, working from home, handling the pandemic restrictions.”

John Stack

“Empathy for our colleagues and employees has never been more critical because it seems like workers have rarely ever been so stressed out and desperate in modern times. Effective leaders must comprehend this, and put people’s needs first.  Boundaries between work and home have collapsed, professional caregivers and schools have functionally disappeared for many, lives have been lost or changed forever because of illness, and unemployment has soared.  Demands for racial justice and societal change are urgent and pressing, but at the same time the change feels so hard to achieve in a polarized political climate. In this context, where the problems seem so pressing, the ability to deeply understand the needs and concerns of others is the superpower leaders need, so they can take action in a way that is fair, sensitive, and keeps the team together and motivated.  A leader without empathy is a true risk to an organization at this moment.  Insensitivity to employees who are dealing with crises may forget what you said, as the saying goes, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

Sara Snyder

“I was at a conference once and the speaker (who was from a successful tech firm) was asking the audience to shout out what super power they would like to have. The usual answers came back – flying, X-ray vision, invisibility. Someone then shouted out “Empathy” and there was a big pause before the room broke out in applause. It seems like a quality that is especially needed right now if we look at the models of leadership being presented to us – both in the tech/entrepreneurial sector and in the world of politics. Everything Sara has written above rings true, as well as John’s notes on the crucial importance of collaboration and communication. There’s a risk of departments in a big organisation working remotely to entrench themselves in their own silos and protect their own interest, starting projects without first building consensus.”

Rob Cawston

“We’re all charting new territory with COVID, what better time to be vulnerable than now? More seriously, the stress from a pandemic, being at home with one’s family, being at home alone, witnessing or fighting against persistent racial injustice is leaving many people fearful and vulnerable. We’re not going to “will” our way out of this one. Further there will be lasting impact; mentally, financially, and more. As Sara says, they will never forget how they made you feel.”

Effie Kapsalis

Q4: Can leaders learn to be more empathetic or is this an innate trait? 

“I think it comes more naturally to some people than others, but I think it can be learned.”

John Stack

“It can absolutely be taught, and should be, from childhood through adult life.  It is an essential leadership skill and form of emotional intelligence.”

Sara Snyder

“I do think it is a conscious, deliberate choice to be one type of leader over another, and it takes time and work (most of which is unseen to others and most of the effects of which remain unseen to you). Empathy definitely has a sacrificial/unselfish element to it and it’s absolutely something which can be taught and can thrive in some environments more than others.”

Rob Cawston

“I’m still working on it and don’t think I’d be stupid enough to say I won’t ALWAYS have something to learn about empathy. You’ve got to build that “empathy muscle”. Can I pause and try to see where that person is coming from? Can I ask 2 more questions at my meeting today? Can I reach out to someone with a question that makes me uncomfortable? Can I seek to understand the “person who constantly drives me crazy’s” point of view? Not always pretty but becomes more normal over time.”

Effie Kapsalis

Q5: What is holding us back from being empathetic leaders?

“I think it takes time and that’s something which leaders are generally lacking in. So, they need to make time and that should be something that is in their control. I think there’s a culture of top-down leadership which leads to organisation-wide culture which can be non-empathic.”

John Stack

“Empathetic leadership takes a lot of self-awareness, and a considerable amount of time. If one is rushed to produce on a deadline, or can’t make the time to connect and listen, leadership risks taking the turn towards the authoritarian. Selfishness and competitiveness, which can be natural responses in some situations, have to be tamped down.  Workplace culture is also very powerful, and flows from the top.  In an organization with a “command and control” type of CEO or which has a culture of rewarding stoic self-sacrifice, it can be hard to make a change.  However, I believe leaders exist at all levels of an organization, not just in management roles. We all can all make it a habit to practice empathy and compassion, starting with ourselves, and to extend that grace to others in all our types of professional interactions.  Being a better leader starts with wanting to be a better person.”

Sara Snyder

“We’ve just shifted from a very command-and-control style of leadership at the very top to a Director who is much more open, collaborative and empathetic. It’s a big shift and one that will take more time than anticipated to filter down to the organisation. Culture change is hard and takes a long time. I think there’s something in the system and processes we use when at work that have a big impact on how we communicate, listen and understand other people. The culture isn’t just embedded in people (although that’s what drives it) but it also resides in systems and ways of organising work. For example, top-down decision making, sign-off processes, how meetings are run, how creative ideas are invited and explored.”

Rob Cawston

“I agree on the time factor that Sara and John said so well. Also what Rob points out as the top-down culture that exists in tradition-bound organizations like ours.”

Effie Kapsalis

In the U.S. it feels like we are in the least empathic time in our history. Empathy has always gone against the United States’ culture of individuality and the “self-made” man/woman. There’s nothing like the “fear of looking bad” to shut one’s vulnerability down. There is also a hierarchy in museums with “scholarship” being most valued with the others being “extras”. And we may not have very many examples of what empathic leadership looks like?