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Empathetic leadership


An essay on how digital natives may be best equipped as managers to respond to crises, written by Cambridge Judge PhD candidate Ariel de Fauconberg, is a Top-10 finalist in the student category of the Peter Drucker Challenge contest.

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An essay by Ariel de Fauconberg, a PhD candidate at Cambridge Judge Business School, on how digital natives may be best equipped as managers to handle future crises was named a Top-10 finalist in the student category of the Peter Drucker Challenge essay contest, named after Austrian-American management author Peter Drucker. The contest is organised by the Vienna-based Peter Drucker Society Europe.

Ariel de Fauconberg.
Ariel de Fauconberg

The research of Ariel, a member of the Organisational Theory & Information Systems subject group at Cambridge Judge, focuses on understanding the challenges that large organisations and particularly in the energy industry face as they pursue alternative energy-related innovation.

Ariel’s essay placed seventh in the Drucker Challenge competition, and she was invited to the annual Peter Drucker Forum in Vienna in November. Ariel’s essay is entitled: “Rational, yet compassionate: the new era of stewards forged in fire”.

“Our current young generation – that of digital natives who have grown up with societal disruption – are likely to be uniquely equipped to lead the way forward given the disruptive circumstances of their own youth,” says Ariel’s essay. “Experiencing the stressors of multiple once in-a-lifetime crises – ranging from the 2008 global financial crisis to the COVID-19 pandemic, to the unbearable urgency of climate change mitigation, to social uprisings pushing for a more just and fairer world – creates a cauldron of empathy in which more compassionate, more human, leaders are formed, if only they are able to connect with those around them and make sense of it all, both for themselves and for others.”

The 12th edition of the essay contest focused on “What crisis demands of the manager”, with entrants asked to focus on an insight about responding effectively to crisis gained through an experience as manager, entrepreneur or student.

Ariel’s essay focuses on her experience finding out in March 2020 about the coronavirus-prompted lockdown in Britain including at the University of Cambridge, when she decided to remain in Cambridge rather than fly internationally to weather the pandemic with her family – and how making this difficult decision made her realise that leaders of tomorrow will need to “pair rational decision-making processes with the deeply human ability of compassion”.

Digital natives, she argues, “may be uniquely equipped to pair these two in their style of management” owing to the many global crises they have witnessed growing up, “unexpectedly shaping them into becoming the future stewards we will need to successfully navigate our years ahead.”

The essay draws on works of Peter Drucker over many decades, including a 1993 book (Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices) in which he argues that managers must think through an organisation’s long-term strategy while also setting measurable and actionable short-term objectives. “While this may seem obvious, times of crisis (such as we continue to experience during COVID-19 times) reveal to us how difficult this path may in fact be,” Ariel’s essay says.

Addressing the immediate needs of a crisis in a way that enables an organisation to recover afterwards and retain long-term resilience “requires a lightness of touch and strength of skill I believe is best developed out of a manager’s own personal experience – what one might term their character,” she writes, and this “requires the manager to engage with her or his humanity – ie, their ability to empathise with those beyond themselves and be compassionate in even the most trying of circumstances”.

Development of such empathy “is an acquired skill that broadens a leader’s perspective, and, I argue, will enable ‘digital natives’ to emerge, forged from the fires of hardship, to lead with the dual rationality and compassion we will increasingly require in the years ahead.”