Over this week, I have reviewed stories from The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, mining each story for themes and lessons related to the compliance professional, leadership and business ethics. In today’s fifth and final offering for the week, I consider The Veiled Lodger. It is one of the shortest stories in this volume and one of the clearest which shows the influence Holmes can bring to bear on the participants in the tale. The final problem solved informs today’s discussion of empathy in compliance.
Holmes is visited by Mrs. Merrilow, a landlady from South Brixton who has an unusual lodger who never shows her face as it has been hideously mutilated. This woman, Mrs. Ronder, carries a terrible secret but will not involve the clergy or the police and will only talk to Holmes.
Holmes and Watson travel to see Mrs. Ronder and she is wearing her veil. The mutilation was caused by a planned murder gone awry. She and her lover, Leonardo, used a circus lion to murder her husband and the lion then turned on her, severely disfiguring her. Mrs. Ronder could not bring herself to implicate Leonardo in her husband’s murder at the inquest and is only now telling this story because she believes that she will soon die. Ever since the night of the incident, she has lived alone and veiled. Holmes can only offer advice in this situation; realizing that Mrs. Ronder is contemplating suicide, he reminds her that her life is worth something as an example of patient suffering in an impatient world. She responds to this by lifting her veil, and the sight is ghastly. However (and this is where the empathy comes in) Holmes see a bottle of prussic acid on her mantle and tells her “Keep your hands off it.” A few days later, Holmes receives a bottle of prussic acid from Mrs. Ronder. In considering what Holmes told her, she apparently thought better of it.
I think that it is an important habit for any Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner to not only practice but also master. A 2015 New York Times (NYT) article by Daryl Cameron, Michael Inzlicht and William A. Cunningham, entitled “Empathy is Actually a Choice”, focuses on research by the authors on leadership.
The researchers noted, “While we concede the exercise of empathy is, in practice, often far too limited in scope, we dispute the idea that this shortcoming is inherent, a permanent flaw in the emotion itself…we believe that empathy is a choice that we make to extend ourselves to others. The “limits” to our empathy are merely apparent, and can change, sometimes drastically, depending on what we want to feel.” The authors ended by stating, “Arguments against empathy rely on an outdated view of emotion as a capricious beast that needs to yield to sober reason. Yes, there are many situations in which empathy appears to be limited in its scope, but this is not a deficiency in the emotion itself. In our view, empathy is only as limited as we choose it to be.”
In another NYT article, Is Empathy on Your Résumé?, Adam Bryant profiled Stewart Butterfield, the co-founder and chief executive of Slack, a communication service for businesses, on leadership style. Bryant’s article on Butterfield and his leadership style brought these concepts home. Most interestingly, Butterfield began by self-disclosing, “I’m good at the leadership part. But I’ve always said that I’m a terrible manager. I’m not good at giving feedback. People are like horses — they can smell fear. If you have a lot of apprehension going into a difficult conversation, they’ll pick up on that. And that’s going to make them nervous, and then the whole conversation is more difficult.”
Another insight on leadership was something as simple as meetings. Butterfield said, “if you’re going to call a meeting, you’re responsible for it, and you have to be clear what you want out of it. Have a synopsis and present well. At the same time, if you’re going to attend a meeting, then you owe it your full attention. And if it’s not worth your attention, then say so — but don’t be a jerk about it — and leave the meeting.” So more than simply taking responsibility for one’s own time, he put out the empathy to allow you to consider how your agenda (or lack thereof) may have negative repercussions on others on your team or in your organization.
Another interesting insight from Butterfield were his thoughts on empathy as it related to leadership. This is a much sought after trait for employees, as early as in the interview process. He said, “When we talk about the qualities we want in people, empathy is a big one. If you can empathize with people, then you can do a good job. If you have no ability to empathize, then it’s difficult to give people feedback, and it’s difficult to help people improve. Everything becomes harder.”
Similarly, to his examples around meetings, Butterfield believes that empathy can express itself as courtesy. He said, “One way that empathy manifests itself is courtesy. Respecting people’s time is important. Don’t let your colleagues down; if you say you’re going to do something, do it. A lot of the standard traits that you would look for in any kind of organization come down to courteousness. It’s not just about having a veneer of politeness, but actually trying to anticipate someone else’s needs and meeting them in advance.”
I found it interesting that on the same day in the same newspaper, theory not only met practice but the practice had a business application. For those out there who feel leadership skills are ingrained into your DNA, the authors pointed out “Likewise, in another recent study, the psychologists Karina Schumann, Jamil Zaki and Carol S. Dweck found that when people learned that empathy was a skill that could be improved — as opposed to a fixed personality trait — they engaged in more effort to experience empathy for racial groups other than their own. Empathy for people unlike us can be expanded, it seems, just by modifying our views about empathy.”
Yet, for the CCO or compliance practitioner, Butterfield pointed out specific areas where the trait of empathy can yield great respect for you and your position in any corporation. People rarely think of courtesy and respect as leadership skills but if you can bring these to bear in your compliance practice, you can garner greater influence as not only someone who cares but someone who cares and gets things accomplished. For any corporate disciple which relies on influence to succeed these simple tools can go a long way to providing to you a wider manner to impact corporate culture, become a trusted partner and be a part of any significant business conversation earlier rather than later in the game.
I hope you have enjoyed another Holmes themed week as much as I have enjoyed rereading the stories and bringing the compliance and leadership insights to you.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2019