Len Jessup of Claremont Graduate University: 5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Empathy will help you to ensure that people on your team will derive real, personal meaning from their work, and their satisfaction and performance will rise as a result.

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is increasingly recognized as a pivotal leadership trait. In an ever-evolving business landscape, leaders who exhibit genuine empathy are better equipped to connect, inspire, and drive their teams towards success. But how exactly does empathy shape leadership dynamics? How can it be harnessed to foster stronger relationships, improved decision-making, and a more inclusive work environment? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Len Jessup.

Len Jessup (www.lenjessup.com), author of Self Less: Lessons Learned From a Life Devoted to Servant Leadership, in Five Acts, is an award-winning educator and innovative leader. He is currently president of Claremont Graduate University. He previously was president of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and also has held leadership roles at Washington State University and the University of Arizona. Jessup is a widely published author and speaker on entrepreneurship, innovation, and organizational change. He also is a sought-after advisor on higher education strategy, new ventures, and executive development. Jessup holds a Ph.D. in management from the University of Arizona along with an MBA and bachelor’s degree from California State University, Chico.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about empathy, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I’ve been blessed to have worked with some amazing teams at some incredible universities. We’ve built an NFL-ready, domed stadium that our university got to play in, we launched a much-needed, first-class medical school, we developed top-ranked programs in high-demand areas, we placed tens of thousands of students over the decades into great careers, and we raised a heck of a lot of money including some mega-gifts along the way. Too many stories to recount here. I think one of the moments I am most proud of, however, was extending a generous tuition benefit to the classified staff at one of the universities I worked at. When I arrived there as president, one of the groundskeeper supervisors (Conrad) let me know that this tuition benefit, which essentially gave nearly free education to employee dependents, was only available to faculty and the professional staff and administrators; not to the classified staff like him. He argued that they were the employees who needed it the most. I agreed with him and so then he and I worked hard to get the benefit extended to the classified staff, which had a transformational effect on them, their dependents, and on their families for generations to come. To me, that story stands out because of the profound impact it had on people, and because of the courage and conviction that Conrad had to talk about that with me.

What do you think makes your experience stand out? Can you share a story?

Again, so many great stories that I could recount here. One other one that stands out is helping a donor feel good about his gifts and his efforts to help our university. One of our trustees called to let me know that another trustee, Irwin, was not doing well and was likely to pass soon. The trustee who called recommended that we take Irwin for a golf cart ride around campus so that he could see the impact of his efforts, the land that he had helped to secure for us, and the many buildings that he had helped us to build. It was thought that a quick trip down memory lane would boost his spirits and give him at least one more chance to feel good about his efforts before he passed. It wasn’t easy to pull this off as he was in a wheelchair, but we made it work. What a terrific ride that was, helping him to see all he had accomplished and the tremendous impact that had on the university … and would continue to have for decades to come. It was an emotional ride but was it sure worth it. Working with donors like this to help them ensure their legacies was an incredible privilege for me and ranks among the most rewarding moments in my professional life.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

The first trait that comes to mind is hard work. I remember in my early days in the Kelley School at Indiana University how hard everyone worked. There was clearly a work ethic at the Kelley School. The Dean at the time set the example and was typically the first in to work and the last to go home. You could tell because his car was often the first one in the lot, and the last one to leave. He was legendary and set the example for everyone. We all worked hard to match his effort, but rarely did anyone beat him into the lot in the morning or leave later than him to go home at night. That dedication was admirable and inspiring. I had always worked hard at everything I did, but it wasn’t till I got to the Kelley School that I got to experience that as a dominant value within the organizational culture … and it drove success at that school.

I also decided early in my career that I would never shy away from an opportunity that came my way to show my dedication and what I was capable of. Many of these opportunities came open and I was always quick to jump in and volunteer for them. Sometimes they were small and other times big, and they nearly always ended up serving me well in my professional development and my career trajectory. One that comes to mind happened when I was at Washington State University as dean of the business school. The president, whom I respected a lot, asked if I would step over and run the university’s foundation instead. While it wasn’t a job I wanted, and while I didn’t want to leave the business school, I decided to do as he asked and take on this other role. I respected him a lot and trusted him, and I wanted to help him. He set a goal that before he retired in a few years we would double fundraising, bring in the university’s largest gift ever, and set up his successor for success by putting in place a billion-dollar fundraising campaign, all of which we did in a few short years leading up to his retirement. That experience soon led to my being courted to return to my alma mater as dean of that highly ranked business school, and eventually led to my becoming a university president.

The other trait that comes to mind is treating everyone well and realizing that relationships matter in the long run. I was always of a mindset to treat everyone well, no matter who they were or what their role was vis-à-vis my role, because that was simply the right thing to do. It wasn’t till later, however, that I realized that treating people well also helps to build great, long-lasting relationships, and those relationships end up helping you down the road … a nice byproduct of being nice to people. I’ve had several people on my teams become good friends and later go on to become successful and work with me again in different roles later and/or at different universities. In one case one of them later became my boss.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

As the scale and complexity of the organization that you’re leading grows, so grows the frequency of difficult decisions and choices. I can think of many times when I was faced with a difficult decision or hard choice among options. An example came in the development of a medical school at a campus that I led. Early on in that process, we had to determine a location for the medical school and then, related, a set of buildings that would ultimately be built. We had many competing locations and corresponding groups of powerful proponents of each of those locations. Each location and group associated with it had its merits. We listened to everyone and went to every site to “kick the tires.” We ultimately chose a location and corresponding group to work with to develop the medical school. It was the right choice then and now, but it was a difficult one and it disappointed many who were lobbying for different locations and approaches. We had to make sure that the groups we chose not to work with understood why we had chosen the group and location we opted for. We also worked hard to determine if there were other ways we could work with these other groups and locations down the road. We learned many lessons from that difficult choice. Primarily, we learned that even in a big city, it’s a “small town” and you must learn how to continue to work with all of your neighbors.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define empathy in a leadership context, and why do you believe it’s a vital trait for leaders to possess in today’s work environment?

At its simplest level, empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. I think that for leaders the key word in that definition is the “and” because it is not enough to simply be able to understand how others might be feeling or thinking about something. As a leader you’ve also got to share their feelings in order to be able to lead them and your organization to success. That might not mean that you must share their opinion on a matter, but you must at least be able to appreciate why they feel the way that they do and see that as a legitimate, justifiable feeling. Without that, you’re just a bull in a China shop, as the old saying goes, moving blindly and disrespectfully forward … and leaving people discarded in your wake.

Can you share a personal experience where showing empathy as a leader significantly impacted a situation or relationship in your organization(s)?

A story I often tell to illustrate empathy is one where we were trying to build and launch an online MBA because the enrollments in our traditional in-person MBA were declining. We had a group of senior faculty members who were opposed to the development of the new online program. Their stated reasons were that in this program we were developing leaders and that would be difficult if not impossible to do in an online format. We went round and round discussing the veracity of that argument and got nowhere with them. We decided to stop those arguments and, instead, met informally outside of work with a subset of these faculty members. By doing that we learned that their stronger, underlying reason for opposing the change was that they personally didn’t want to spend time switching over to the new format all their old course syllabi, notes, lesson plans, exercises, PowerPoint slide decks, tests, etc. When I learned that, I got it. I could see why they wouldn’t want to do that at this late stage in their careers. In other words, I now truly understood their hesitation, and I agreed with them that for them this was a legitimate reason to not want to shift to online teaching. I had true empathy for them. That changed our strategy with them completely. They agreed that the traditional MBA program enrollments were tanking and that we needed to do something. We reached an agreement that they wouldn’t have to help design, build, implement, or teach in the new online program. We had a group of excited faculty who wholeheartedly wanted to do that. Instead, our group of senior faculty members with hesitations about online would continue teaching other courses in the traditional format, which we needed and which they were good at. We found a way to get by the impasse without them creating both visible and passive-aggressive roadblocks. We implemented that new online program, and it now brings in far more tuition revenue than the traditional program, and all faculty both young and old benefit from that shift.

How do empathetic leaders strike a balance between understanding their team’s feelings and making tough decisions that might not be universally popular?

If you are truly an empathetic leader, you are going to have to make decisions and/or choices that you know are going to run counter to what some people on your team and/or within your broader organization are not going to agree with or like. That’s why leading people can sometimes be agonizing. Toward that end I’ve always tried to make sure I understand all sides of an issue, to include people as much as I can in decisions, and to be as transparent as I can be about decisions and the process that leads to them so that people have a sense of procedural justice. That way, the people who don’t agree with a decision or choice we’ve had to make at least understand why and feel they were heard. I would much rather have people feel that, while they disagree with a decision, they understand why we made it and feel that they were listened to and had some influence on it, as opposed to them feeling that we made a bad decision, didn’t talk with anyone, and were cold and out of touch.

How would you differentiate between empathy and sympathy in leadership? Why is it important for leaders to distinguish between the two?

As I mentioned above, having empathy starts out at a minimum with understanding someone else’s feelings about something. Then as you build your level of empathy, you also share their feelings. You get it. You know exactly why they feel the way they do, and you agree with them that this is a legitimate way for them to feel. I believe that the next level of empathy is to show people that you understand their feelings and to validate them. Sympathy, to me, is on another level where you then feel pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortunate, whether it be present now or that might be created because of a decision or choice you make. The next level of that would be communicating your feelings of pity or sorrow with those individuals. While I think that being empathetic is necessary to being an effective leader, I feel that leaders need to be careful about showing too much sympathy. While showing your emotions and sorrow for someone is healthy, the leader must be careful not to overdo it and end up looking like they are patronizing, fake, and manipulative.

What are some practical strategies or exercises that leaders can employ to cultivate and enhance their empathetic skills?

If you think back to that basic definition of empathy you’ve got clues for how to enhance your related skills. Step one is understanding the feelings of others. The easiest way to do that is to simply ask people how they are feeling about something. If you can’t do that for some reason, then the next best thing is to try to put yourself in their shoes, imagining how you might feel in their situation. You might even ask others on your leadership team for their take on the situation to see if it validates your interpretation of how people are feeling. The next part of empathy is sharing those feelings. In other words, move from the intellectual to the emotional. Now that you understand why they are feeling the way they are, can you try to imagine how that would make you feel inside, and with what strength, and what might that in turn cause you to do? If you were in their shoes, would you feel strongly enough that it might cause you to slow down your effort at work, or to push back on leadership, or perhaps even to leave the organization? The third level is then communicating back with people that you understand how they feel and that you validate that their feelings are legitimate. It’s not enough that you know it; they must know that you know it.

How can empathy help leaders navigate the complexities of leading diverse teams and ensure inclusivity?

If you can enhance your level of empathy, then you have gone a long way toward being able to successfully lead diverse teams and ensuring inclusivity. Understanding and sharing the feelings of others will help you to manage teams where members come from different backgrounds and perspectives, and by communicating your empathy with them, it will help them to feel valued and wanted … to feel welcomed. Empathy is key in any successful DEI initiative.

Based on your experience and research, can you please share “5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership”?

1 . Empathy will help you better understand and manage resistance to change.

2 . Empathy will help you to better manage diverse teams and to help people to feel included.

3 . Empathy will help you to make and implement better decisions and choices, especially the difficult ones.

4 . Empathy will help you to do the right thing, even if you weren’t aware that it needed to be done.

5 . Empathy will help you to ensure that people on your team will derive real, personal meaning from their work, and their satisfaction and performance will rise as a result.

Are there potential pitfalls or challenges associated with being an empathetic leader? How can these be addressed?

The risk is that you’ll actually get to know the people you work with, and you’ll care about them, literally feeling their highs and lows. It can be demanding, exhausting, and sometimes frustrating work. Be sure to practice self-care, and be sure not to totally give up your own wants, needs, and aspirations in the process.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Some years ago, I figured out that my purpose in life is simply this: when I get to the end of my path, I want to be able to look back in that moment and know that I did everything I possibly could to have as much positive impact on as many people as I possibly could, and that I never shied away from an opportunity to do so. I wrote it in a little notebook that I keep close by, and I have used that approach to guide all my decisions, both small and large. I think that the movement I would like to see is for people to examine their own life purpose and to think carefully about how they might have an even more positive impact on others. If we all did that, even in just small ways, that could be a game changer.

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Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.