Calls for empathetic leadership are on the rise, with one survey linking a lack of empathy to the reason 54% of people are quitting their jobs. Some managers say empathy is unnecessary and gets in the way of accountability and standards, with one recent report showing an alarming 68% of CEOs fear displaying empathy will lead to a loss of respect. Others are incorrectly using the term empathy to describe things like fairness, trust, and inclusion. In reality, empathy is often considered an umbrella term for resonance, sympathy, and compassion. But what we specifically need right now is the last term: compassion.
Compassion—unlike empathy and sympathy—is when the desire to help becomes an impactful response. Leaders who go beyond understanding someone’s distress and take meaningful action demonstrate genuine concern for their people. Essentially, compassion is often the difference between telling someone you care and showing them.
To see what compassion looks like in practice, we asked Colonel (Ret.) Steve Miska—a leader whose scope requires compassion on a near-daily basis and in a setting where many might assume soft skills don’t belong. He served three combat tours in Iraq, was a White House National Security Advisor to the Obama Administration, and taught future military leaders at the US Military Academy and the Marine Corps University. His book, Baghdad Underground Railroad: Saving American Allies in Iraq, takes a closer look at the ties that bind humanity, detailing bold actions that help us understand why compassion is an essential leadership trait—no matter the conditions. We spoke with Miska about his time in Iraq and his insights on compassion. Below are edited excerpts.
Q: Let’s start with your time in Iraq. What’s it like to go into a place where everyone is in survival mode, and try to establish trust among Iraqi interpreters, Muslim women, and American service members?
Normally when we go into a hostile environment like that, we’re really focused on the men and women on our right and left, the American service members. But then, as we worked alongside the Iraqi people we realized, ‘Hey we’re sharing the same risks together,’ and those bonds formed. But it goes beyond that because they’re sharing even more risks and their families, in many cases, are at risk, whereas our families are safe somewhere else in the world.
One of my closest interpreters was killed when he went home to see his wife, who had just given birth to stillborn twins. He had previously swore on the Quran that he was not working with the Americans in the green zone, which was true … [but] he was killed by Sunni insurgents, because he was working with me, an American. It was just, it was so raw for me.
Q: You mentioned after that incident you read a scathing article about the lack of US policy to insulate our closest Iraqi partners and that it pushed you over the edge. Was empathy the ‘a-ha’ moment that created inertia for action?
Yeah. I couldn’t look myself in the mirror, as I did try to help my Iraqi colleagues. We were all going into harm’s way every day, together, we relied on each other a lot. And then at the end of my tour, I was going to go back to Germany, safe with my family, but they were going to stay there, still facing the same threats and, in many cases, more risk because their families were being targeted, their kids were being followed home from school, there were death threats being left on their doorsteps. That was part of the motivation for me writing the book, to describe what it was like to work alongside Americans, from Iraqi eyes. I interviewed a lot of interpreters who were fortunate enough to make it out, and I recounted some of the stories of those who didn’t make it.
Q: I’ve heard you say that you wrote your book for the characters in it, and for humanity to understand them. What do you mean by that and why, as humans, do those perspectives matter?
Storytelling is so critical in order to get to [a place of] empathy. If I could recount some of the stories to show the basic human themes that we all face, then maybe we could get to that space.
Q: Do you think empathy is a bridge for what divides us, generally speaking?
It’s a way. What is polarizing us is a constant emphasis on our differences, so we’re ignoring this huge space of common ground between us. That’s where stories with an empathetic approach come in, to spotlight how much we have in common despite differences in opinion. As I’m talking to different audiences around the country, so many people just want to know, ‘How can I help?’ and it’s not a political thing for them, it’s, ‘We should do this as Americans. We owe these people a debt, because they helped our men and women.’
Q: Why do you think leaders sometimes shy away from empathy?
I think it’s insecurity in many cases, because they don’t want to appear to be weak. When I looked at leadership, going through West Point and then in my years in the military, we tend to categorize leaders as either type X or type Y. Type X are very results oriented, focused on what the mission is going to look like. Type Y leaders are very people-centric and they build teams and they believe in the team. I feel like if I bring the right people in, I just need to get out of their way and be a good cheerleader. It’s a difference in philosophy, but it also requires a level of security or confidence in other people and not just focusing on when somebody lets you down.
Hear more of Steve’s stories on the recording of our Veteran’s Day episode of Your Brain at Work Live.