There’s an old episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation about Picard falling in tragic love with an alien woman. Okay, there’s a bunch of those, but there’s one in particular in which the alien has the ability to change her personality to perfectly match her mate, and become the ying to his yang, being precisely what he needs in a mate. I never liked that episode, or others of its ilk, because it was slow and mushy, and I watch sci-fi more for the “sci” than the “fi”. Plus, I don’t have the attention span to deal with an episode full of dull romantic scenes.
I don’t think I’ve seen that episode since I was teenager, but the concept of the empathic metamorph, which is what Kamala was, really stuck with me. Having empathy is naturally important to the success of most, if not all relationships, but this concept goes a step farther because it’s not just understanding the other person’s point of view, but also changing how you interact with them, in an intentional way. And not superficially, saying the right things in a difficult conversation or knowing which buttons to push to make them happy, but understanding them deeply enough to know what they need in the short term and the long term, and understanding one’s self deeply enough to know how, with the skills available, to help them achieve their goals.
It’s clear that this would be an incredibly complex process, and it takes a lot of time and investment, but I think that the most motivational leaders — the ones that elicit trust, loyalty, and high performance — are essentially empathetic metamorphs. Not in the Star Trek sense, (and not empathic, like Betazoids are), but in the sense that they can change their behavior to bring out the best in a given situation, with the given audience. Sociopaths probably can too, though of course they would do it for their own gain, rather than the other person’s.
The Dimensional Space
The word “metamorph” literally means “shapechanger”: in Greek, “meta” is “change” and “morph” is “shape”. I don’t think an official antonym exists, but let’s call it a “statimorph” — those who can’t change shape. If we look at leaders along the two binary dimensions of having empathy and being able to change themselves in response to it, we get a simple K-map:
|Empathetic||Good leaders||Great leaders|
We can try to understand the empathetic metamorph better by looking at the other types of leader.
The apathetic statimorph is the manager that doesn’t care. They’re not a people leader: they’re a true manager. It’s probably not that they don’t want to be better, but for whatever reason, they just don’t have the ability to understand people. They probably rely a lot on process and rules and have a “no exceptions” policy, because rules and rules and you have to be fair. And those rules are probably conceived, written, and implemented by the apathetic statimorph without much input from anyone else.
The empathetic statimorph is, I think, most leaders. They care about their employees and want to see them succeed. They listen to suggestions and complaints and try to improve the environment and processes and mentor their employees so that they grow and in their careers. But they themselves cannot change. They are the same boss to the entry-level engineer as to the principal engineer, to the introvert and the extrovert, to the Builder and the Hacker. They understand how each employee feels and what motivates them, but they aren’t able to be warmer and more encouraging to the entry-level engineer, to afford the principal more intellectual leeway, to be an introvert with the introvert and an extrovert with the extrovert, and to talk about vision with the hacker, but goals with the builder.
The apathetic metamorph, I don’t think I’ve seen in real life. They would be like The Talented Mr. Ripley though. Or Anna Delvey. Able to show whatever version of themselves other people need to buy in order for the metamorph to get ahead. I think people like this are rare, both because most people are good at heart, but also because apathetic metamorphs can probably fake being empathetic until they actually become empathetic, and simply go down this path because they realize selfish people tend to not be that successful.
So finally, the empathetic metamorph is what all the others aren’t. They’re the boss that learns chess in order to better bond with a chess-obsessed employee. The one that, before finalizing a team decision, makes sure to ask the new engineer about it in private, realizing that they might not have been comfortable enough yet to have spoken up during the team meeting. The one that uses metaphors from The Office even though they don’t really like The Office, because they know most of the team loves The Office. The one that knows which employee wants to hear the bad news coming a mile away, and which one would get paralyzed with anxiety about it — and waiting until the last minute to tell them.
I’m not sure exactly how to become one, though I do think it can be learned — probably with lots and lots and lots of practice. Years of deliberate practice in expanding one’s knowledge and skills in order to be able to meet everyone around them on their own terms. Whether that’s worth it probably depends, like most things, on the cost-benefit analysis: how hard it is for the leader to do, vs how important it is for them to be that good.