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Perhaps all heroes are empathic.  To test that hypothesis, let’s first define hero and empathy.

  • Hero (as defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary):  “a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability; an illustrious warrior; a person admired for achievements and noble qualities; one who shows great courage.”
  • Hmm.  Noah Webster and his publishers, the Merriam brothers, help a bit, but we must go deeper.  Here is Joseph Campbell’s definition of a hero, based on the world’s myths he studied and popularized:  “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”
  • Empathy (as defined by Daniel Goleman, the author of “Emotional Intelligence” in the “Harvard Business Review”):  “cognitive empathy – the ability to understand another person’s point of view; emotional empathy – the ability to feel what someone else feels; and empathic concern – the ability to sense what another person needs from you… Compassion takes empathy a step further.”
  • Let’s take that next step with the Dalai Lama:  “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

That helps, for years ago when I conducted a small survey on whom young people find heroic, just as many youngsters called out their mothers, fathers, and teachers as those who referenced Gandhi and Lincoln.  So perhaps there are two types of heroes: (1) those who play out their journeys on the world’s large stage as so-called fathers of their nations or saviors of the union; and (2) those who stay closer to home to quietly fulfill their heroic duties by feeding children or educating students.  To inspire aspirational awe or to simply serve as accessible role-models, these heroes must be empathic. After all, who wants to emulate a Debbie Downer or a Pessimistic Pyush?

Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO and the author of “Hit Refresh,” can be read in many ways (part memoirist, part futurist, part social activist, part corporate cheerleader, part inspirational business leader), but half-way through the first chapter, I elected to read him as an interesting test case of whether one person can be both a hero of the supernova type (giving his life to transforming Microsoft and thus being featured in the Harvard Business Review) and also hero as dedicated-dad (giving his life to Anu – his wife –  and their children in a way that was featured in Good Housekeeping).

With his gift of empathy, Nadella seems to have pulled off the magical and mythological coupling.  Somehow he is able to make his extraordinary journey from Hyderabad Public School to Microsoft Chief Executive seem ordinary, and his ordinary life as son, husband, and father seem extraordinary.

At HPS, he “was not academically great.”  His dream was “to attend a small college, play cricket for Hyderabad, and eventually work for a bank.  That was it. Being an engineer and going to the West never occurred to [him].” And his Sanskrit scholar mom nurtured the dream of a  balanced life: “That’s fantastic, son!” While his civil servant father was less enamored with young Satya’s provincialism, he was more “amused than annoyed,” when Satya flunked the Indian Institutes of Technology entrance exam.  Even after catching the wave of entrepreneurship, drive, and ambition in college at Manipal Institute of Technology, Nadella still “never wanted to leave India.” Despite hoping to be rejected from American graduate schools, he found his way to the frozen middle of the country at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.  Clearly Nadella was no wunderkind of the Bill Gates variety; no mythical Harvard dropout narrative for Nadella. His special genius seems to have been to work hard, apply himself to the task in front of him, find himself in the right place at the right time, and the willingness to take full advantage of unexpected opportunities by hitting refresh.  “No master plan.” Just a small-town boy with no chip on his shoulder, but a willingness to take on whatever his slender shoulders could carry.

After his Masters degree, Nadella worked for Sun Microsystems back in the day when Sun was a darling of Silicon Valley.  Since Microsoft “needed someone who understood UNIX and 32-bit operating systems,” Nadella found his way to Redmond, Washington.  But he really wanted to go to business school at the University of Chicago and become an investment banker, so the pull of Microsoft’s headquarters was not single-mindedly alluring. With his ability to balance multiple interests, Nadella flew to Chicago on weekends for a part-time MBA and during the rest of the week flew all over the country trying to sell Microsoft’s operating system value proposition to corporate CIOs.

Nadella’s professional story meanders along like this for so long in Chapter 1 that the reader begins to wonder how in the world did this guy become a CEO of Microanything, let alone Microsoft.  There were clearly men and women who were more academically gifted, more monomaniacal in their focused drive, more connected to sources of organizational power, and quite frankly more ambitious. And yet, this enigma-of-a-wannabe-cricket player became only the third Chief Executive Officer that Microsoft has ever had.  Perhaps it was the three guiding principles that he learned from his cricket-playing days that put Nadella into the proverbial corner office:

  • Principle 1:  “Compete vigorously and with passion in the face of uncertainty and intimidation.”
  • Principle 2:  Put “your team first, ahead of your personal statistics and recognition.”
  • Principle 3:  Recognize the “central importance of leadership.”

While these principles have internal validity and make for good copy, it is more likely that Satya Nadella was appointed CEO of Microsoft by Bill Gates (who has written a gushing forward in “Hit Refresh”) because he proved himself to be indispensable to two product lines that were linchpins of the company’s comeback:  online search and cloud computing.

Of course, there are plenty of CEOs who have been appointed with great fanfare due to their engineering talent or their marketing IQ, but crashed and burned faster than a California wildfire (classic example:  Carly Fiorina’s destruction of Hewlett-Packard from legend to laggard). So maybe there is another attribute that contributes to leadership success, something that is the opposite of the headline-grabbing hubris that defines the crashers and burners.  This is why our definition of heroes needs to be expanded; heroic leaders must also be able to empathically “build shared context, trust, and credibility.” This was what Nadella learned in business school while reading Norman Maclean’s “Young Men and Fire.”  While an uncommon business text, this book certainly shows Nadella’s literary bent.

Although trustworthiness is a must in all aspects of life, it is a sin qua non for leaders (not many lifelong HPers would say they ever fully trusted Carly Fiorina to carry forward their HP Way culture).  Those with a healthy sense of empathy are likely to be trusted not only by family and friends, but also by colleagues and customers.

In rather direct language, Nadella writes:  “Ideas excite me. Empathy grounds and centers me.”

While this reader imagines that young Satya’s empathy began when he was in short-pants playing cricket in Hyderabad, Hit Refresh suggests two dramatic turns that served as catalysts for moving this key aspect of emotional intelligence to the forefront for Nadella as he strove to be a leader of hearts as well as hands and heads:  the first was feedback he was given at the end of his interviews to join Microsoft; the second was a more personal learning upon the birth of his first child, Zain.

Towards the end of a full day of interviews which tested Nadella’s “fortitude and … intellectual chops” (i.e., his hands and head), the future CEO of Microsoft came across Richard Tait, a rising manager who asked only one question:  “Imagine you see a baby lying in the street, and the baby is crying. What do you do?”

Nadella’s engineering background kicked in with a problem-solving, transactional response:  “You call 911.”

Although Nadella got the job, Tait’s avuncular feedback was perhaps of greater value than the first-year salary Microsoft offered:  “Richard walked me out of his office, put his arm around me, and said, ‘You need some empathy, man. If a baby is lying on a street crying, pick up the baby.’”

A few years later, Anu and Satya were blessed with the first of their three children.  As a result of utero asphyxiation, Zain was born with severe cerebral palsy, a disability that to this day has resulted in his being reliant on loved ones and caretakers.  To be sure, Zain is on his own journey of life, as are his sisters and parents.

Perhaps the following paragraph from his father’s hitting the refresh button is an apt ending to this book review:

“Being a husband and father has taken me on an emotional journey.  It has helped me develop a deeper understanding of people of all abilities and of what love and human ingenuity can accomplish.  As part of this journey I also discovered the teaching of India’s most famous son – Gautama Buddha…. I discovered Buddha did not set out to found a world religion. He set out to understand why one suffers. I learned that only through living life’s ups and downs can you develop empathy; that in order not to suffer, or at least not to suffer so much, one must become comfortable with impermanence. I distinctly remember how much the “permanence” of Zain’s condition bothered me in the early years of his life.  However, things are always changing. If you could understand impermanence deeply, you would develop more equanimity. You would not get too excited about either the ups or downs of life. And only then would you be ready to develop that deeper sense of empathy and compassion around you.”

Or perhaps the above paragraph is an even more apt opening of our collective hearts as we find ways to serve those we lead.


Article authored by Rajesh C. Oza.
Acknowledging those who have directly impacted my approach to consulting:  “For Barack Obama, M. K. Gandhi, and Mother Teresa who inspired RCO to be a servant leader.  For Abraham George, Al Etterman, Ann Livermore, Bob Dimicco, David Miller, Deb Shoquist, Dennis Maher, Dhrupad Trivedi, Dick Love, Erik Axter, Jim Sherriff, Joe Millington, John Cronkite, John Weber, Kathy Boyd, Kevin Kennedy, Lenny Alugas, Marc Hoff, Mason Rotelli, Matt Gillis, Mitch Goodman, Parvesh Sethi, Paula Huckaby, Roger Saillant, Sastry Kuchimanchi, Steve Herrick, Terry Liddy, Tom Rump, Tom Tiernan, and Wim Roelandts, all of whom, in their own way, encouraged in RCO greater empathy as a consultant.  And for RCO’s hero and son, Siddhartha, who is on his own mindful and heartful path to using business as an agent of change.”

Dr. Raj Oza has written or contributed to Globalization, Diaspora, and Work Transformation, Satyalogue // Truthtalk: A Gandhian Guide to (Post)Modern-Day Dilemmas, P.S., Papa’s Stories, and Living in...