These days, we ask much of our leaders. Organizations and governments are under great pressures to perform. These days, leaders are responsible for crisis management during a pandemic with its attendant economic destruction and social and emotional anxiety.
More and more we are realizing that empathy is a powerful aspect of leading well.
Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from their frame of reference (i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another person’s position). Researchers have identified several types of empathy:
- Cognitive empathy is the capacity to understand someone’s mental state.
- Emotional empathy is the capacity to respond with an appropriate emotion to another’s mental states, including a concern for others when they are suffering.
- Somatic empathy is a physical reaction in our nervous system that entails physically feeling someone else’s pain (e.g., getting a sense of physical pain when you see someone else get hurt).
According to the research, when managers exhibit the most empathy toward their team, they are viewed as better performers. What’s more, when we exhibit empathy as leaders, we build trust with others because they see that we are paying attention to them and recognizing their issues and concerns. When we empathize, we relate to and connect with people. That contributes toward building a sense of teamwork and camaraderie.
Empathy as a Cornerstone of Great Leadership
According to Roman Krznaric in Empathy: Why It Matters and How to Get It, empathy “is not just about seeing things from another’s perspective. It’s the cornerstone of smart leadership. The real competitive advantage of the human worker will be their capacity to create relationships….” Great leaders focus not just on vision and execution but also on building healthy and close relationships with people they work with.
Empathy shows up in several modern leadership frameworks. For example, it is one of the ten characteristics of a servant leader and one of the components of emotional intelligence (and its social awareness aspect).
In our “triple crown leadership” model for how to build excellent, ethical, and enduring organizations, it shows up in our “head and heart” practice, with leaders hiring, developing, and rewarding people not just for “head” skills like knowledge and skills but also for “heart” factors, including empathy.
What’s more, we can view leadership as a quest (e.g., to achieve a higher purpose), but as entrepreneur and author Jim Rohn notes, “As a leader, you should always start with where people are before you try to take them where you want them to go.”
Recently, we have seen troubling examples of narcissism in leaders, including an excessive need for admiration as well as a disregard for others’ feelings, interests, or safety. That is a real shame, because it keeps the focus on the leader as opposed to the larger purpose and the people in the organization and those they serve.
What’s more, the best leaders leverage empathy to understand their customers much more deeply and thus lead their teams in creating products and services that solve real problems—and in seeing opportunities for innovation in the marketplace that others miss.
Empathy is an essential aspect of effective leadership and a powerful human trait that binds us together in the ups and downs of life and work.
Personal Values Exercise
Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (co-authored with his father, Bob Vanourek) and LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion). Take his Leadership Derailers Assessment, complete his Personal Values Exercise, or take his Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), or sign up for their newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!