Extending Lean-Agile Leadership Skills with Empathetic Leadership

Extending Lean-Agile Leadership Skills with Empathetic Leadership

Events Field Notes from Thought Leaders Lessons from the Trenches

At the 2017 SAFe Summit, Dr. Chuck Pezeshki, Ryan Martens, and myself presented Extending Lean-Agile Leadership Skills with Empathetic Leadership to a standing-room only audience of interested souls. This talk was the result of weeks of work compiling our collective knowledge into a 45-minute synchronized talk presenting our individual perspectives and understandings.

The main takeaway from our talk was the following:

As we continuously nurture our set of development value streams, and strive to deliver value that is both sophisticated and evolved from a development perspective, we also have to have empathy expressed throughout the social system in order to evolve our information coherence to enable the development process. This is inherently an emergent process. And, believe it or not, empathy helps you manage complexity. When people are connected, the information that passes between them is far more likely to be accurate, and thus you’ll increase the quality of the end result.

This topic of empathy has been inspired by Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, and the change-management and leadership myths that Jim distills. The reality is that there is no miracle moment in which transformations occur. Just as our Agile Release Trains (ARTs) represent a journey in which applying Lean and Agile patterns and principles incrementally provides better results to our internal and external customers and society, there is an empathetic dimension and related evolution of our social and human networks that truly provide better results as well. In short, as the systems and solutions that we’re delivering evolve, empathy needs to evolve in parallel.

As organizational empathy increases, it permeates throughout its structure. Leaders initially set the pattern. Leadership style, and the associated empathy level, is then reinforced by the behavior of employees. This propagates in a circular fashion both up and down and throughout the organizational structure. As empathy increases, our knowledge and information coherence increases as well.

It actually goes even deeper than a simple circular reinforcement. The roots of empathy are deeply neurogenic and are associated with the emergent parts of our human brains. Starting in our brainstem, and spreading out through our emotional, and finally our conscious centers, empathy and its expression maps to timescales (from virtually instantaneous to short-term and long-term memory) in our brain. It is the core of our collective being. How we cultivate and allow its expression directly indicates how evolved our organizations are.

Spatial, temporal scales, resources, energy

In summary, the benefits of empathy are profound. Positive work environments, increased knowledge flow, information coherence, quality and productivity are only the tip of the iceberg.

So if evolving empathy is truly an emergent process, where can you start? Perhaps by following a simple Learn-Do-Teach sequence.


  • Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss
  • Blog: guru


  • Empathy Interviews:
  • Prior to Program Increment (PI) Planning
  • Prior to Portfolio Planning
  • Bring customers and/or partners to PI Planning


  • Empathy interviews to other Scrum Masters, RTEs, and facilitators

To learn more, please download the Extending Lean-Agile Leadership with Empathetic Leadership presentation from the 2017 SAFe Summit.

Many kudos and deep gratitude to Dr. Chuck Pezeshki and Ryan Martens for collaborating on this important work. If you want to learn more, please reach out and let us know!

Cheers and be SAFe!



Author Info

Jennifer Fawcett

comment (2)

  1. Beth Hatter

    29 Nov 2017 - 3:22 pm

    Great topic Jennifer – one that I feel is definitely not addressed enough but is critical to understanding how organizations work and evolve. Does Scaled Agile have plans to expand on this work and incorporate this material into workshops and future course ware?

    • Jennifer Fawcett

      05 Dec 2017 - 3:13 pm

      Thank you Beth! We are currently experimenting with this topic. Feedback like this is critical in our continuous exploration of the leadership knowledge and topic. Will reach out personally for further discussion. Cheers!

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