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Can empathy in leaders be developed through portrait painting?

I think that the truth of this, and the short answer, is yes.

The long answer looks something like this!

Empathy, in a normal functioning brain, is not an “all-or-none” and that while some emotional responses are unconscious, empathy can be bought into the conscious mind. Empathy while difficult to teach, is a learnt skill and closely related to emotional intelligence and engenders tolerance. It is the most cited critical requirement in effective leadership in education and navigating complex situations well, that can improve outcomes for followers. It has been described as “a critical ingredient in positive and transformational leadership outcomes”.

An important underlying component in the emotional dimension of empathy is the tendency to mimic or synchronize facial expressions, posture and movement, to “converge emotionally”, and being mimicked, increases social closeness and prosocial behaviour. In the same way, not being mimicked creates a feeling of exclusion.

It is not unusual for this “mirror response” to happen when engaging with art in a way that observes facial expression, a process driven by the prefrontal cortex. It is in considering this point, that the connection between painting a portrait and empathy emerges and the possible positive impact this may represent leadership.

Most activities require both sides of the brain, however, a few require mainly one. Betty Edwards, author of “Drawing on the right side of the brain”, explains that drawing is one of these, with visual function, spatial awareness, perception, and facial recognition located in the right hemisphere. She reflects that some of what was previously seen as drawing skills, are seeing skills, and in her own practice, uses art to aid thinking and problem-solving at a corporate level. She describes the process of shifting from our dominant left to the right as a process that offers deeply engaging, productive, and restoration opportunities.

Restoration of self can happen through mindful practice. The original intent of which is to develop insight, compassion, and critical inquiry towards an ethical life. Mindfulness is a clearly defined behaviour that is built on self-reflection and awareness of one’s emotional responses and marks a state of non-judgmental attentiveness and presence. Mindfulness has been reported to contribute to;

  • the capacity to deal with events that may destabilize an organization,

  • the development of prosocial behaviors and empathic responses , as well as

  • having a positive connection to the quality of empathy and facial recognition.

Art-based mindfulness has been shown to reduce anxiety in both workshops and single sessions. The connection of painting and mindful practice is explained and connected by Fitzpatrick,

“the practitioner does not get stuck in intellectual analysis but experiences the moment in a detached way, neither judging nor holding onto practical considerations. This stance liberates the practitioner; otherwise, the mind is a prisoner of its unbridled discursivity. This non-judgmental state that is cultivated also allows an empathy with others because it increases our abilities of acceptance, as opposed to judgment” .

Why connect leadership learning and empathy with art? Carl Jung said “Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain” . Creating art can bring new understandings through reflecting and creating. “Creativity is fundamentally important to who we are and what we can know. It is how we go from being functional beings to being extraordinary”.

Artful engagement can impact profoundly on organizational life, especially team processes, by moving groups beyond a leader–follower duality to embrace and explore the complex array of interactions. These and other experiential learning that require deep reflection in and on practice can lead to; transformational learning, has the ability to encourage co-operation, develop creativity, improve motivation and build self-esteem.

Could the act of repeatedly gazing upon a face, and actively replicating it in some visual artistic way help leaders to see and understand the subject of their gaze? Could the reflection of this process open a new way of knowing self and others? Can this new knowing positively impact leadership outcomes?

I think that answer to this is yes.

What do you think?

You can read more about this from this list of references

  1. Al-Abbas, M., Hammad, R. M. K. A., Al-Tawalbeh, F. M. M., Al-Alawneh, D. M. M., Issa, Y. S. S., Jawabra, N. Y. A., & Obed, A. F. (2020). Self-Reflections in a Personal Space: Investigating the Process of Self-Portrait Painting by Academic Research Journal of Education and Practice 11(11).

  2. Bossons, P., Riddell, P., & Denis, S. (2015). The Neuroscience of Leadership Coaching : Why the Tools and Techniques of Leadership Coaching Work. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

  3. Carroll, N. (2017). Empathy and painting. In The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Empathy

  4. Dow, A. W., Leong, D., Anderson, A., Wenzel, R. P., & Team, V. C. U. T.-M. (2007). Using Theater to Teach Clinical Empathy: A Pilot Study. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 22(8), 1114-1118.

  5. Edwards, B. (2012). Drawing on the right side of the brain (Definitive, 4th ed ed.) [Non-fiction]. Tarcher/Penguin.

  6. Fitzpatrick, C. (2017). Painting, Mindfulness and Crowther's Aesthetics [Article]. Contemporary Aesthetics, 15, 1-13.

  7. Giannou, K., Lander, K., & Taylor, J. R. (2023). Attentional Features of Mindfulness are Better Predictors of Face Recognition than Empathy and Compassion-Based Constructs [Article]. Psychological Reports, 126(3), 1481-1515.

  8. Gómez-Leal, R., Holzer, A. A., Bradley, C., Fernández-Berrocal, P., & Patti, J. (2022). The relationship between emotional intelligence and leadership in school leaders: a systematic review [Article]. Cambridge Journal of Education, 52(1)

  9. Greenbaum, R. L., Babalola, M., Quade, M. J., Guo, L., & Kim, Y. C. (2021). Moral burden of bottom-line pursuits: How and when perceptions of Top Management Bottom-Line mentality inhibit supervisors' ethical leadership practices. Journal of business Ethics, 174(1).

  10. Grocott, L. (2022). Creative Imaging Learning from Sensing and Wondering In Design for Transformative Learning (pp. 15). Routledge.

  11. Hanold, M. T. (2011). Leadership, Women in Sport, and Embracing Empathy [Article]. Advancing Women in Leadership, 31(1), 160-165.

  12. Isis, P., Bokoch, R., Fowler, G., & Hass-Cohen, N. (2023). Efficacy of a Single Session Mindfulness-based Art Therapy Doodle Intervention. Art Therapy, 1-10.

  13. James, W. (2017). Art Therapy in Private Practice : Theory, Practice and Research in Changing Contexts [Book]. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

  14. Jeffrey, D., & Downie, R. (2016). Empathy - Can it be taught? J R Call Physicians, 46, 107-112.

  15. Jian, G. (2021). From Empathic leader to empathic leadership practice: An extension to relational leadership theory. Human Relations, 75(5), 24.

  16. José van den Akker. (2014). Art-based learning: painting the journey of self-realisation. Reflective Practice, 15(6), 751-765.

  17. Ladkin, D., & Bathurst, R. (2012). Performing Leadership: Observations from the World of Music [article]. Administrative Sciences, 2(1), 99-119.

  18. Meinecke, A. L., & Kauffeld, S. (2019). Engaging the Hearts and Minds of Followers: Leader Empathy and Language Style Matching During Appraisal Interviews [Original Paper]. Journal of Business and Psychology, 34(4), 485-501.

  19. Menegazzo, J. S., Valeria, C.-O., Alberto, O.-M., & Marisa, S. (2015). Positive Institutions and their relationship with transformational leadership, empathy and team performance [article]. Multidisciplinary Journal for Education, Social and Technological Sciences, 2(2), 38-64.

  20. Pionke, J. J., & Graham, R. (2021). A Multidisciplinary Scoping Review of Literature Focused on Compassion, Empathy, Emotional Intelligence, or Mindfulness Behaviors and Working with the Public [Article].

  21. Poonamallee, L. (2021). Mindful leadership : cultivating mindfulness to lead self and others in a changing world - a 28-day program. Routledge.

  22. Pyles, L., Cosgrove, D. T., Gardner, E., Raheim, S., Adam, G. J., Chakravarty, S., & Cooke, C. (2021). "Could We Just Breathe for 30 Seconds?": Social Worker Experiences of Holistic Engagement Practice Training [Article]. Social Work, 66(4), 285-296.

  23. Rauchbauer, B., Jank, G., Dunbar, R. I. M., & Lamm, C. (2023). Only empathy-related traits, not being mimicked or endorphin release, influence social closeness and prosocial behavior. Scientific Reports, 13(1), 4072.

  24. Rowland, S., & Weishaus, J. (2020). Jungian Arts-Based Research and "The Nuclear Enchantment of New Mexico".

  25. Sandberg, B., Stasewitsch, E., & Prümper, J. (2022). Skills Development through Virtual Art-Based Learning: Learning Outcomes of an Advanced Training Program for Project Managers [Article]. Education Sciences, 12(7), N.PAG-N.PAG.

  26. Singer, T., & Lamm, C. (2009). The Social Neuroscience of Empathy. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1156.

  27. Swan-Foster, N. (2020). C. G. Jung’s Influence on Art Therapy and the Making of the Third. Psychological Perspectives, 63(1), 67-94.

  28. Wang, C., Darbari, I., Tolaymat, M., Quezada, S., Allen, J., & Cross, R. K. (2023). Randomized controlled pilot study of feasibility and effectiveness of peer led remote Mindfulness-Based Art Workshops on stress, anxiety, and depression in medical students [Article]. Psychology in the Schools, 60(6), 1744-1759-1759.

  29. Xie, T., Zhao, X., Jiang, T., Zhong, M., & Ma, N. (2023). Mindfulness training selectively reduces altruistic behaviour in low-cost situations. International Journal of Psychology, 58(3), 272-281.


Cheryl Gush.jpg

I'm Cheryl

I am embarking on a journey to explore how art can inform better leadership learning and perhaps even help us shift the dial on things that can really make a difference in business

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