Empathic leadership

My mother, an MSW and retired therapist, has an uncanny ability to recognize ones emotional intelligence. I recall when I was younger her saying things like “that person is all left brain” or “that person is all right brain”. At the time I didn’t understand the details of how the brain worked, but I had a general idea of what she was saying. She was saying that there were two types of minds, one is rational and one is emotional.

Do you know someone who is highly intelligent, yet shows a lack of emotional connection and empathy? Or do you know someone who can’t grasp basic algebra, yet has a strong ability to connect with others? The reason for this relates to the human brain and the biology of empathy. Thanks to science, we now understand that emotional and rational minds are semi-independent and interconnected facilities within the brain.

Below is a description of the three central areas of the human brain that are at work when we are using empathy. They are the neocortex, the visual cortex, and the amygdala:

  • The neocortex – The neocortex is the part of our brain that handles our thinking and logic. In humans, the neocortex is the biggest part of the cerebral cortex.  The human neocortex is  bigger than any other species and the evolution of the neocortex has given us the ability to survive. The neocortex enables us to have thoughts and feelings. It serves as the center for higher functions of the brain that enable vision, hearing, touch, and all other cognition.
  • The visual cortex – The visual cortex is part of the cerebral cortex and it handles processing visual information. When we see something happening, the visual cortex starts processing information about what we are seeing. It then sends signals to other areas of the brain to process and respond. If the visual cortex processes information you see as emotional, it send signals to the amygdala, which handles the emotional centers of the brain.
  • The amygdala – The amygdala is what gives us the ability to have feelings and emotions. There are two amygdala in the human brain, one on each side. They are shaped like almonds and they sit just above the brainstem. The amygdala is interconnected with the neocortex and the two work together. They allow us to have feelings and make decisions. Daniel Goleman, expert on emotional intelligence, writes: “If the amygdala is severed from the rest of the brain, the result is a striking inability to gauge the emotional significance of events; this condition is sometimes called “affective blindness” (Goleman, 1995).

We know that the circuitry between the neocortex, visual cortex, and the  amygdala are hard at work when we are having an emotional response. If we felt physically threatened, the amygdala is telling us have an either flight or flight response. While the amygdala is telling us to fight or flight, the neocortex allow us to think about the decision before taking any action.

When we think through consequences before acting, like going to jail if we were to attack someone, we have the neocortex to thank.

To understand what life would be like without empathy, we need to look no further than our prisons. Our prisons are filled with violent criminals who have the inability to feel their victim’s pain. Rapists, molesters and murders have a common trait, most of them are incapable of empathy.

Prison systems now use programs to try to instill empathy. They do this by forcing the inmates to feel and understand the pain of their victims. The most extreme violent criminal is the sociopath. Sociopath’s are completely incapable of feeling empathy or compassion. They are untreatable.

It is now common knowledge that emotional intelligence is important for leadership and success. Most of the successful people I know didn’t have through the roof IQs. Instead, they had a strong ability to connect with others. The good news is that we can improve our emotional intelligence. The key to improvement is self commitment, and feedback from others. For more on EQ development, see Daniel Goleman’s post here.

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References: Goleman, D. (2005) Emotional Intelligence, 1995,  New York, NY, Bantam Books