Benjamin McNutt: Empathy leads to creativity

As a designer, David Kelley is on par with the likes of Steve Jobs, with one key difference. He’s not a raving jerk to his employees.

I wish I could design stuff like David Kelley. It’s not hard to see why.

He’s the founder of IDEO and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. Smart doesn’t begin to describe this guy. As a designer and innovator, he’s on par with the likes of a Steve Jobs, with one crucial difference -- he’s not a raving jerk to his employees. Empathetic is actually the term he uses in an interview with Fast Company:

“The main tenet of design thinking is empathy for the people you're trying to design for. Leadership is exactly the same thing--building empathy for the people that you're entrusted to help…By getting down into the messy part of really getting to know them and having transparent discussions, you can get out of the way and let them go. The way I would measure leadership is this: of the people that are working with me, how many wake up in the morning thinking that the company is theirs?”

Empathy, Kelley insists, is also the key to cultivating what he calls “curious employees”:

“If you want the people you work with to do extraordinary things, you really have to understand what they value. I'm trying to get people to remain confident in their creative ability. In order for them to have that kind of creativity, you have to be very transparent. Understand them and involve them in the decisions being made…The worst thing you can do to a creative person is have commands come down from the top so they don't see their role and don't see the trade offs.”

That’s genius because it’s so simple: People will have confidence in their creativity if you as a leader take a vested interest in them and their creative enterprises. Perhaps Kelley’s empathetic leadership is why his organization designs empathetic products, like this one.

Empathy as a leadership quality that engenders creativity? Sounds a bit like pastoral care. I think we Christians can get on board with that.