What Managers can learn from an Olympics incident

This post first appeared in DNA India on 20th August, 2016

The Olympics have followed a mostly predictable pattern from an Indian viewpoint. There have been heartbreaks galore as our athletes have performed to the best of their abilities but have come up short when it came to the medal rounds. One of the few bright sparks for India, before the wrestling bronze for Sakshi Malik and the entrance of PV Sindhu into the badminton finals was Dipa Karmakar with a truly gutsy performance in coming fourth in the vault competition amidst a truly world class field. However, for me the moment of the Olympics had to be the freestyly wrestling bout between Vinesh Phogat and Sun Yunan.

Shortly after the bout started, the Chinese fighter caught Vinesh’s legs and as she fell, her right leg twisted at a weird angle, leaving Vinesh writhing in agony on the floor. It was apparent to folks watching that this was a particularly bad injury. As the doctors attended to the fallen wrestler, the referee announced Sun Yunan as the winner. However, this is when the human drama unfolded that left me spellbound. Instead of jumping with joy on being announced the winner, Yunan, looked disconsolate and utterly miserable. It was obvious that she felt for her fallen opponent. The referees motioned her to leave the wrestling mat but she stood around looking at Phogat. There were tears in her eyes and one could see that this incident had affected her deeply. As Vinesh was being stretchered off, the Chinese coach gently nudged his ward towards the stretcher. Yunan, walked up to one of the men carrying the stretcher, took the bag that he was struggling to carry from him, and then followed the stretcher out of the arena.

So why am I talking about it? Because that, to me, was a wonderful demonstration, not just of sportsmanship, but of genuine empathy and fellow feeling for a fellow athlete. This was someone almost going through the pain that an opponent was going through and it is rare that one sees such a vivid demonstration of what empathy looks like. Organizations tend to look for empathy from their managers and leaders and there is many a lesson that employees can learn from this demonstration from Yunan. Empathy goes beyond just feeling sorry for a person but extends to putting oneself in the other person’s shoes and to feel viscerally what the other person must be going through. Great leaders often tend to have the innate ability to do this, thereby finding the right response when their team members are going through a tough time.

Can empathy be taught? Or are some people just born with the ability to empathize with other? From my own personal experience I can attest to the fact that empathy can be learned. It is by no means easy, but those managers and leaders who can get impatient with team members who perhaps do not work at their pace or in a manner that they would be accustomed to, can train themselves to identify with what their team members are going through. A caveat though is that empathy is singularly difficult to fake. One can certainly fake sympathy but even the thespian skills of a Sivaji Ganesan, Sanjeev Kumar or a Marlon Brando would be hard pressed to fake empathy.

So, go ahead. Learn from Sun Yunan. Identify with your employees and see how you start growing as a leader. Despite the paucity of medals at the Olympics, perhaps there is something in it for all of us after all.