by Emma Sharma
Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom, and Propel Sophia seeks out the voices of truly wise women and asks them to share worked examples of how they express faith in daily life. Pull up a chair at Sophia’s table, won’t you? There’s plenty of space.
It was a Tuesday morning and our executive team were arguing about an incident involving one of our senior leaders. At a recent corporate offsite, ‘Kevin’s’ behavior was highly concerning. First his presentation to an audience of almost 100 people—including the entire leadership team, the Chairman of the Board and other distinguished guests—contained inappropriate material masquerading as humor that offended many in the room. Later that evening, several of Kevin’s peers noticed him consuming potent alcoholic cocktails at an alarming rate. By the time he was quietly escorted back to his bedroom by a kind teammate, Kevin was visibly emotional and incoherent. Kevin’s fate was certainly on the table. His behavior was contrary to all our company’s core values and raised real questions as to whether Kevin, the leader of a critical compliance function, had lost the respect of his colleagues to such an extent that he could no longer be successful in his role.
It’s not unusual for leaders in any organization to be faced with situations like this. We ask ourselves, ‘What’s the right thing to do with Kevin?’. Many in the room felt the answer was clear: Kevin must go. He was unstable, a liability and – with bonus season approaching – here was a clear opportunity to avoid making a five-figure payment to an employee whose otherwise strong performance meant he was deserving of the recognition. What do you think? Would you fire Kevin?
Everyone in that room, including myself, agreed that Kevin would face real consequences. However, as Kevin’s manager, I really wanted to understand what had happened to Kevin. You see, it was completely out of character for him to act up in any way and I really was concerned not just about Kevin’s behavior, but for Kevin. He might lose his job today, but Kevin’s need for help was evident.
I’ve managed people for 25 years and this was not my first rodeo. As a naturally empathetic leader, I am guided by scriptures that are foundational in defining the approach I must take. 1 Samuel 16:7 says “People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”. When I put myself in Kevin’s shoes, I reflected on him confiding that he was terrified of presenting to large audiences. We had been working together to build his confidence, and competence, in this crucial skill. However, I should have known he was not ready to present at such a prestigious corporate event. Kevin had also been showing increased signs of stress during the pandemic. His responsibilities included leading the company’s COVID-19 response protocols which often engaged him in verbal crossfire with others trying to reconcile conflicting guidance (from multiple sources) on the best approach. Recently, Kevin’s team had done a phenomenal job handling the repatriation of a colleague who was tragically killed while working overseas. That incident alone would be enough to overwhelm many and not long afterwards it was noted that Kevin had appeared visibly emotional on a couple of team zoom calls. Finally, I gently probed Kevin as to what was going on. And there it was: his pain and emotion were evident as he shared a deeply personal story of being abandoned by his mom as a small child. Recently, she had reappeared in his life triggering a surge of emotion and questions. What was inside Kevin’s heart explained his highly unusual behavior.
One of the myths about empathetic leadership is that it’s weak and results in poor behavior being tolerated. Not so. While Kevin’s inappropriate behavior required disciplinary action, Kevin also needed our compassion and support because, in my view, the indignity of losing his job was unwarranted. Kevin also agreed that he would speak with a professional counselor to get support during this really difficult season, and we temporarily reassigned some of his more stressful duties to myself and other teammates. Kevin grasped this second chance and turned himself around.
However, there was another reason for my approach in dealing with Kevin. In Matthew 7:2 Jesus has a lot to say about judging others “for you will be treated as you treat others.” Earlier in my life, I had experienced God’s immense grace and his complete forgiveness when, following a very painful divorce, I had struggled to hold myself together for some time. That event triggered an episode of C-PTSD and depression (a hangover from childhood trauma and abuse) and I started acting out at work, in life and, yes, drinking too much to numb the pain while I sought solace in all the wrong places. I was unpleasant to be around yet good, loving friends gently encouraged me back onto the right track and openly demonstrated God’s love and forgiveness. In the parable of the forgiven servant in Matthew 18, God is very clear that those of us who have been shown much grace are required to show that same grace to others. The workplace is no exception.
Empathetic leadership is living out the Lord’s words in Isaiah 55:8-9: …” my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts are higher than your thoughts.” Faced with dilemmas involving people, it’s asking: ‘What would Jesus do?’ and then following his example.
Emma Sharma is the Founder and Principal of Swallowtail Group and a global business executive known for her entrepreneurship, strong empathetic leadership style and willingness to go where ‘Angels fear to tread’. She is also a passionate advocate on mental health issues that impact the workforce, especially at executive leadership levels. A corporate attorney and executive for over 25 years, Emma is passionate about seeing the Kingdom of God invade the marketplace. She is a devoted wife and mom to two young children and lives in Northern Virginia.