Ann Tonks
is specialised in leadership, management and governance in the non-profit sector. For many years she was the Managing Director of one of Australias most prestigious arts companies, Melbourne Theatre Company. These days, shes an arts management consultant helping companies improve their governance, strategic planning and organisational culture. She also teaches graduate management courses. Anns also been on many boards including superannuation, employer and industry associations, theatre, opera and dance companies.
The A to Z of Arts Management


In this article, I hope to give you some insights in how developing empathy for others will help you lead your staff in such a way that you'll be able to better meet the uncertainty and challenge of running an arts company.
For years I've been an arts manager, an arts board member and an occasional arts management academic. I've used some great arts management books to both learn from and teach with. All of them offer great insights into the role. But they only seldom combine theory and practice, insights of success and failure, and story telling to help people understand how to do their job better. And so I wrote the A to Z of Arts Management to talk about aspects and competencies that aren't usually found in many management textbooks. I will introduce some of them in this series on Arts Management Network.
As a leader, you need to develop your emphatic sensibilities, not just for ethical reasons but also because by having a deeper understanding of your staff, your audiences, your board, your stakeholders, you will be a more effective leader.

Taking me as an example: On the one hand, I cry at movies and can't go to scary ones because I can't bear on the torment. On the other hand, I read murder mysteries for fun. What does this say about my capacity for empathy? As Scott Rankin (2014, 26), an Australian cultural producer, puts it [e]mpathy is different to sympathy empathy is deep, to enter into the life of another. Sympathyis not so deep. It is still valuable, but it is experienced alongside, rather than empathy, which enters into the experience.

Empathy is important within organisations because if one can identify with the other, one has a chance of understanding their actions in response to yours and building both trust and trustworthiness in the process (Beugelsdijk & Maseland 2011). There are three forms of empathy:

  1. Cognitive empathy the ability to understand another persons perspective
  2. Emotional empathy the ability to read what someone else feels
  3. Empathic concern the ability to sense what another person needs from you (Goleman 2013, p.55).
Im reasonable at #1 and #3 but I can't always tell what people really mean or feel. I get around that by trying to encourage people to believe that Im open and accessible (which is generally true) in the hope that they will tell me how they are feeling. In his autobiography, Peter Brokensha (2007) one of my mentors, talks about how hed come to wisdom over the previous three quarters of his life. For him, empathy was:

understanding the expectations of others from your relationship with them. I have found that if I had provided a service, a product, a deed which not only meets the recipients expectations but exceeds them I have been rewarded twice. I have felt good that I have done something for someone else and in addition, in most cases I have received the gratitude, and perhaps tangible rewards from the recipient (p. 155).

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, the director of the wonderfully named Empathy and Relational Science Program at a US hospital gave advice on how to improve ones empathy:

Suspending your own involvement to observe whats going on gives you a mindful awareness of the interaction without being completely reactive. (Goleman 2013, p. 60).

She goes on to say that one might be able to start a process of improving ones empathy by faking it, and proposed a way that might increase your self-awareness and capacity to empathise:

if you act in a caring way looking people in the eye and paying attention to their expressions, even when you don't particularly want to you may start to feel more engaged.

It may seem odd to think about faking something as important as empathy but if it helps increase the amount of it going around, then it's worth the effort. There's an entire movement, led by cultural thinker and philosopher Roman Krznaric, to increase our individual and collective empathy. Some of the ideas that he posits include:

  • Have meaningful conversations with strangers
  • Imagination yourself in others shoes not just the poor or the disenfranchised but the wealthy or your enemies as well
  • Cultivate outrospection
  • Take an imaginative journey through films, books and dare I say it, theatre.
For years I've been saying to students do as you would be done by as a way of encouraging them to translate how they would like to be treated into a strategy for treating others. Then someone pointed out that what others do might not be what you actual want they might have different tastes and values to you. Empathy is about discovering those tastes (Krznaric 2013).

Covey (1992), in talking about principle-centred leadership, says that it's important to listen with our eyes and heart and secondarily with our ears. In other words, we need to understand the intent of the communication without prejudging it and this can take time, patience and objectivity. The result, he says is not to feel as they feel. That Covey says is sympathy. Rather it means that you understand how they feel based on how they see the world. That is empathy (p. 116).

In a speech about the foundations of leadership, strategic vision and moral courage, Longstaff (2015) says that one important aspect of strategic vision is the capacity to employ a kind of empathetic moral imagination that places a leader in the shoes of key participants including, supporters, allies and foe. to see events as others might see them and to understand the implications of these perspectives. If one can image the world of others then one might be able to find ways of understanding what they feel and need and therefore be better placed to communicate your understanding and desires to them.


Beugelsdijk, S & Maseland, R (2011), Culture in Economics. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Covey, SR (1992), Principle-Centred Leadership, Pocket Books, London.

Gardner, WL, Fischer, D & Hunt, JG (2009), Emotional labor and leadership: a threat to authenticity?, The Leadership Quarterly, 20: 466-482.

Goleman, D (2013), The Focused Leader Harvard Business Review, 76(6): 51-60.

Rankin, S (2014), Soggy biscuit. In Schultz, J (ed), Griffith Review 44, Brisbane, 12-32.
Comments (0)
There are no comments for this content yet.