Empathy, Charisma, Duty, and Ethics

(Originally posted Saturday, October 17, 2015)

The promotion of one of the most effective First Sergeants I have had the privilege of serving under. Bagram, Afghanistan, November 11, 2004.

The question was simple.

My answer, not so much.

The professor seemed to think that I was “missing” the element of a leader’s sense of duty to the troops, but I was non-specific for the simple fact that leadership is not confined to the military alone.

What human qualities shape innate leadership in people?

As the title goes, this sums up what my personal experience has taught me as formative to leadership. Truly effective leadership blossoms under these four simple words, but in order for it to truly thrive, it must be realized for what it is – an inheritance from one generation to the next.

Empathy, or the understanding of how interactions motivate emotion, is a considerable portion of the foundation of leadership. Perception of self, projection of ideas, and an understanding of the mood within a group can offer direction and clarifying communication regardless of whether the guidance is popular or not. Empathy can also provide leadership with indications of internal dissent, approval, or uncertainty when it comes to the goals of an organization as well as a means to indicate that the well-being of all, not just the leader, is considered in regards to the overall goal. With this “rudder” of understanding comes the ability to redirect, encourage, and/or re-evaluate as necessary, if necessary.

Charisma, or charm, can influence and motivate even the most stubborn individual. One does not have to become “best buddies” of everyone under his influence to lead, nor does he or she have to be the highly visible “face” of the group. Rather, charisma can usually succeed in bringing adverse personalities to some sort of unified and common agreement which is beneficial for the group. “Usually” being a disclaimer against absolute certainty because humans are far from concrete when matters of personality and psyche are concerned. Even then, however, charisma can downplay any disruptions due to internal personality conflicts and effectively address any issues within an organization.

Duty falls under a wide scope of considerations – duty to one’s family, neighbor, organization, state, or nation. Faith – or other spiritual beliefs – also forms a sense of duty. From this sense of common belonging, ideas such as loyalty, pride, and responsibility occur naturally. An obligation to prevent and avoid failure is not forced, but embraced and encouraged by all levels – however when such mistakes do occur, they are shared, scrutinized, and learned from to strengthen the whole as well as the individual.


Lastly, and most importantly, ethics is the moral compass which dictates right or wrong – taking into consideration all of the above ideas. Ethics offers a standard by which allowable and inevitable deviation from established rules, guidance, and regulation occurs as well as any follow-on actions to be taken or studied for such transgressions. Empathy is guided by ethics in the sense of how far can emotion guide actions, how far charisma should be allow to influence, and what the individual or collective is bound to do by duty. Without this balancing trait, none of these human qualities could, individually, shape an effective sense of leadership.

Over the years, time and vast amounts of funding has been channeled into research, developmental models, programs, and official doctrine in organizations from small local businesses to governmental departments. Unfortunately, the true lessons of how to properly and efficiently develop leadership has unnecessarily complicated and commodified such a complex and nebulous idea and has lost sight – for the most part – of how leaders are truly shaped: through simple mentorship. Through first-hand experience of how empathy, charisma, duty and ethics fosters trust in those who lead, this responsibility and skill can be passed on to shape the next generation of leadership.


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