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The critical role of empathy in life, leadership, business and our community

Exploding heart background for Valentine's DayFor several reasons, I do my best to keep away from the news. Over the past week that’s been pretty difficult and no doubt you’ve experienced your own personal response to the MH17 disaster. We tend to hope these events are once in a lifetime; still that doesn’t make it any less distressing. My unhinging came from images reported in the media of a rebel soldier rummaging through the wreckage of the plane, one hand on the Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, in the other a teddy clearly belonging to one of the victims. An artifact that I know, from my own experiences, would be recognised instantly by surviving family members. Where is the respect? What if your child or niece or nephew was on that plane? How can this ever be appropriate?

War is an unknown to me and I don’t pretend for one moment to understand what could possess an individual to shoot down 298 fellow human beings. Sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mums and dads, aunts and uncles. But I’m guessing that empathy has a lot to do with it.

Research has repeatedly shown that a lack of empathy is the most typical characteristic of the psychopath. Recent research has identified a neurological basis for this lack of feeling and concern for others, sort of a missing regulator in the brain. It seems that psychopaths lack the ability to feel empathy in their own right, yet if prompted are able to flick their “empathy switch” to “on”.

For the sake of humanity, please tell me how we do this more effectively? How we get more of these maniacs to think and feel about the impact of their actions on others???

It’s easy to say these are criminals in a far away land that are committing such atrocities. But what is the role of empathy in our own life, leadership, businesses and communities today?

And what of the people who demonstrate psychopathic traits in our every day lives? Isn’t it time we really and truly raised the bar around acceptable standards for our communities?

Over the past two weeks I’ve watched and listened in horror at the stories of murderer after murderer, unleashing heartbreak after heartbreak in the form of domestic violence, right here in my own back yard.

  • Elliot Coulson, the navy combat systems officer who an inquest found two weeks ago had murdered his ex-girlfriend Kate Malonyay in suburban Sydney, just about 500 metres from my own home. While I went about my daily life, blissfully unaware, Coulson killed Kate then used her phone and credit card to book travel to Queensland. When police soon tracked him down there, Coulson jumped to his death from a high rise to avoid being detained.
  • Paul Mulvihill who murdered Rachelle Yeo on Sydney’s northern beaches, and whose grieving parents Kathy and Roger Yeo shared their raw emotion this week on the second anniversary of Rachelle’s death, along with their utmost gratitude to 11 strangers who tried in vain to come to Rachelle’s rescue that night. Rachelle had gone to great lengths to relocate to a safer place away from Mulvihill but it wasn’t enough to save her.
  • Greg Anderson who murdered his 11 year old son, Luke Battie, on a cricket pitch near Melbourne, where just moments earlier they had played together. Last week on Four Corners Luke’s mum Rosie gave us a just a glimpse of the nightmare that has become of her life. To bury your only child in such awful circumstances, how does anyone recover from that?
  • And the pièce de résistance, Gerard Baden-Clay the Brisbane businessman who last week was found guilty of murdering his wife and mother of his three young children, Allison Baden-Clay. He even attempted to collect $1million in insurance policies on her behalf, before her body had been formally identified.  Empathy? I think not.

 kate_malonyay  rachelle_yeo  luke_battie  714270-allison-baden-clay

All these vibrant, sunny lives snuffed out by men they had dared to love. Along with 70 other women murdered by intimate partners in Australia over the past year.

Sheer horror. Sheer terror. Right here in our own back yard.

And if you haven’t been a victim of a psychopath at home, the chances are you’ve encountered one at work. According to behavioural scientist Darren Hill, psychopaths are said to number about 1 to 3 per cent in the population. So most people will come across a psychopath in their workplace and their presence becomes more frequent the further you go up the ladder. This is because many of the qualities that psychopaths exhibit — confidence, stress tolerance and a willingness to take risks — are also de rigueur in the job description of today’s leaders.

Belinda Parmar, the founder and chief executive of Lady Geek, says that her efforts in the past to bring more feeling into the workplace were met with comments from testosterone charged colleagues like “Empathy’s a load of old bollocks – it’s all holding hands around the campfire singing Kumbaya.” She believes otherwise and says that empathy, the ability to understand the impact your actions have on others, is essential to being a player in the corporate game and that it needs to be embedded from the boardroom right through to the shop floor.

I don’t know about you, but I reckon this is a darned good starting point for all of us. If you agree, you can participate in a survey Parmar has launched with The Guardian to collect data around the presence or otherwise of empathy at work.

Scary much? You bet. That’s why – more than ever – it’s time now to honour all of these innocent victims, by standing up for the behavior we expect, the behavior we all deserve.

It’s time we demand all psychopaths turn on their empathy switch, or else take a one-way trip to another planet. That we put emotion and feeling front and mind, and that we, as women and men individually and together, demand change. And be that change.

“The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”
– Lieutenant General David Morrison AO, Chief of Army

If you agree with this, then I ask you: is this the standard that you will accept, for our community, our nation and the world our children will inherit?


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