The headlines surrounding the comments made by Bill Michael, KPMG UK Chairman last week in a Zoom meeting to consultants, and his subsequent resignation, have once again reminded us about the impact of unintended consequences of leadership behaviour.
When we experience leaders acting in a way that does not live up our expectations, our sense of a promise or a commitment being broken is palpable and feels very real. Why is that? How can a leadership interaction have such a tangible effect?
The sense of betrayal and disconnection that we feel when leaders fail to deliver on their commitment to us is called ‘social pain’. It can occur through misalignment of what leaders say and do, for example, or by distancing themselves from the standards, principles and values that they hold others accountable to. It feels as real to us as physical pain.
Social pain and physical pain share the same neural pathways in the brain – we are genuinely wounded when leaders use words that hurt our dignity, defined as our ‘sense of inherent value and worth’. When Michael told the consultants to “stop moaning” during a conversation about their work conditions during the pandemic, not only was he demonstrating a distinct lack of skill in leading with empathy and humanity, he was also genuinely hurting them through his words.
In my recent podcast here, How much Empathy is Enough?, hosted by Adam Pacifico, I explored whether empathy without skill could be as damaging as a leader having no empathy at all. Yes, empathy is a critical asset in the leader’s tool kit when it comes to building connection and relating to others. But too much empathy can lead to ethical blind spots and emotional exhaustion, and too little can physically hurt and permanently disconnect leaders from their people, as we have witnessed.
Use of empathy skilfully, with integrity and with constant assessment about its impact on self and others, is a vital part of leadership effectiveness.
A lesson to take away
There are so many lessons to be learnt by the recent episode of unskilful leadership. Vulnerability, acting with humanity, kindness and adaptability are all leadership traits that are attracting more and more attention as we strive to be effective as leaders in the world today.
But the one lesson that stands out above all is arguably this: never underestimate the impact that you have as leader of not just what you say (words) and do (behaviours), but just as importantly, how you make others feel (experience).
Otherwise, in the ever-relevant words of Rob Goffee and the late Gareth Jones, why would anyone want to be led by you?
 FT, Bill Michael quits as chair of KPMG UK after telling staff to ‘stop moaning’. Accessed 12 February 2021
 Eisenberger, Liebermann, and Williams. Does Rejection Hurt?
 Hicks, Donna. Leading with Dignity. Yale University Press, 2018.
 The Leadership Enigma Podcast Series (Apple, Spotify)