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BY Joel Junker

Showing Empathy in 2020

I recently came across an article on LinkedIn written by a friend and former colleague of mine when we worked together at Cisco Systems.  He is now a manager at Google and wrote an article about leading with kindness and showing empathy in the current pandemic.  While it was written from the perspective of working in a tech company, I found several of his points very relevant to JMOs leading in the military during this challenging time.  The full article can be found here.

I thought “kindness” was a good word and maybe a better one for a JMO might be “empathy”.  No matter what rank you are, everyone in the military (and the rest of the us in Corporate America along with other professions) have been through a lot these past few months.  The entire world has seen change we couldn’t have imagined at the start of the year:  a persistent global pandemic resulting in sickness and worse, an economic recession rivaling that of the 2009 housing crisis, racial protests across the world, and record unemployment.   There is no doubt that while some things will return to normal once we can get a handle on this pandemic, there will be permanent changes moving forward.  As a leader, it will be important to figure out how to navigate (and lead) in this new reality.   Sometimes we think of being empathetic as being “soft” on our soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, etc. but I would submit there is true strength to those leaders that can show empathy.  Here are a few examples:

  • Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable.   Every single person is going through something personal and in 2020, it is probably magnified 10x.  As leaders in the military you’re expected to set the example, be mentally and physically tough, etc. but that does not mean you can’t be vulnerable too.  Make sure to be as open as you’re comfortable with in sharing your experiences with your team.  This doesn’t mean you have to share all your problems or your life story, but sharing some struggles will show you’re human and not just the person in charge. And, most critically, it will give your team the permission to be human beings themselves.
  • Be flexible where possible.  This can be difficult in a profession where it’s all about “mission accomplishment” and the task you were just assigned was “due yesterday.”  With everyone juggling so much right now, people may need some time to do personal errands, tasks, that might not have been an issue pre-pandemic (ex: homeschooling, grocery runs wearing masks, etc.)  As a leader, try to roll with the punches as much as possible.  When asking for a deliverable to be done, do it collaboratively and set expectations but be open for feedback on realistic timelines.  There will be times when there is no room for flexibility, but being amenable to flexibility where possible will create an environment your team appreciates.
  • Be even more invested in your people.  Again, this one probably seems obvious but officers are people too.  It’s easy to forget to check in with your people when you are also having to evolve and change to succeed in this new dynamic.  It is easy to get caught up in the next FTX, deployment prep, NTC rotation, inspection, etc. but be sure to check in with your team.  A simple “how are you doing”, “is there anything I can help you with” or even a simple “hi” without asking for anything back goes a long way.   You’ll be amazed how much you get out of these conversations and how much your team will appreciate you for it.

Mission accomplishment and combat readiness will always be paramount in the military, and as my colleague and friend Genio says, “it may feel counter-intuitive to give people more time away, more flexibility, and more leeway while the stakes are so high.”  But by showing empathy and providing an environment that will allow your team to stay mentally and physically strong during this unprecedented time will allow your unit to grow and become stronger.

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