Empathetic Leadership in STEM

Tino MantellaBy Tino Mantella

TLG President & CEO

When you think about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), what is the first word that comes to your mind? I bet that none of you thought “empathy”.

On Friday, August 26th, we greeted eighteen ninth-grade ladies from the Innovation Academy, a new Fulton County public magnet STEM high school. The school launched the “Moonshot Expo” giving ninth-grade students and teachers a chance to select a business to attend to discuss and learn about “design thinking”. The school also had a stated vision for the day – “to get our students in front of our business partners and community members to teach them the importance of being empathetic, contributing citizens to society. We hope to build relationships and gain empathy within our community while helping organizations and businesses solve problems”.

Many of these young ladies are only beginning their STEM journey, entering their second week in a new school full of anticipation and exhilaration. Many of these students will become our future engineers, scientists, mathematicians, and health professionals. At first glance, an orientation on empathetic leadership and design thinking would seem to be the last thing the school would or should encourage at such an early juncture. I contend that it is exactly where the early emphasis must be.


Times (and STEM) have Changed

I became the CEO of the Technology Association of Georgia in 2004. The portrait painted for me regarding STEM types were people that had their heads down with full concentration on their product. It seemed evident to me that that’s what “they” wanted, and the company wanted too. Jokes would float around like – technologists locking themselves in a backroom with no one knowing what they were doing… just slide a pizza under the door and let them do their thing. Then there was the joke about an extroverted engineer who was one that would look at your shoes when they shook your hand rather than look at their shoes. Okay, that’s unfair and not an accurate picture of all in the industry. Maybe some were fitting that picture in 2004.

Today, things have changed. STEM professionals are key figures around boardroom tables. They are the lead professionals in cyber, technology, medicine, and so on. They must be strong communicators and great listeners. As empathetic leaders, they need to focus on the whole – seeking to understand before designing an outcome. As I told the students – they don’t want to be designing a camel when the goal is to design an elephant.

I want to share with you that I am very encouraged about the future of people going into the STEM field. I was blown away by observing a diverse group of caring young women who think about the world with compassion, empathy, and courage.

Congrats to the Innovation Academy for making empathetic leadership and design thinking a foundational lynchpin for these young women. The future is so bright that I am putting on my shades.


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