On Empathy and Leadership

I reckon that it must be a terribly excruciating task to imbue empathic qualities within the realms of leadership. I say this because its resounding success would mean that scholarly articles linking effective and affective leadership to empathy would practically cease to exist from the hollows of the world wide web. Yet, in researching for this piece, I find article after article urging leaders of all kinds to practice generous and wholehearted empathy in the workplace. To convince them that empathy does not equal to weakness or shame and certainly will not diminish the precious reputation they've built up as a tough, no-nonsense leader of calibre.

In fact, I feel it's high time to redefine the parameters by which we define successful leadership. No longer does it suffice to imagine leadership simply as managing groups of people within the larger construct of an organisation or telling people where to go and exactly how to get there. It's beyond keeping team members on the right track or accepting blame where blame is due. Leadership is about growing people, knowing people, and infinitely expanding their possibilities. Your success as a leader is tied not to how much your team members like you, but how well you listen, connect, and communicate with them. People will naturally align themselves with leaders who make them feel heard and understood. It's about understanding that your team members will have bad days that are, at times unavoidable, but made manageable by the presence of a leader that practices wholehearted empathy and generosity in the workplace.

In his book, 'Leaders Eat Last', Simon Sinek says that true leadership is about empowering others to achieve things they didn’t think possible. Exceptional organizations, he says, “prioritize the well-being of their people and, in return, their people give everything they’ve got to protect and advance the well-being of one another and the organization.” This is where empathy comes in.

Sinek believes that empathy is an important, if not the most important instrument in a leader's toolbox. The ability to recognize and share the feelings of others can make a work relationship a harmonious one. For instance, just by simply asking if an employee is okay when his work performance deteriorates will go much further in empathy building than an empty threat of dismissal that you don't really mean.

Empathy is not just about connecting and understanding one's experience. Rather, the highest form of empathy is in connecting to the emotions that underpin said experience. Truly understanding the concept of empathy is important to leaders who are required to manage not only their own emotions but of everyone else around them. A leader who can leverage this dynamic well has an advantage over other leaders who view emotions and vulnerability as weakness.

The empathic leader can quickly identify negative feelings and utilise the knowledge healthily. Inversely, the empathic leader also possess a heightened sensing of positive emotions; a skill that can be a powerful source of influence and motivation. Kristin Neff, an associate professor in the University of Texas at Austin's department of educational psychology and author of The Mindful Self Compassion Workbook has this to say about emotions:

"Taking a balanced approach to negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated… We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time… Mindfulness requires that we not be ‘over-identified' with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.”

Who we are how we lead. Like emotions, empathy is contagious and infinite. And the good news is not only is it infinite, it is renewable. The more empathy we infuse into our relationships, organizations, and culture, the more there is to go around. Employees who feel they are truly valued by their team leaders have little reason to go elsewhere to seek the validation they need as a human being.

A company where people and their emotions are acknowledged and valued is also one that fosters creativity and innovation. Employees tend to take more risk and look for ways to add increased value to the organisation. Their commitment to the organisation makes them feel that their success and that of the company's are closely linked, which can only be a bright and favourable outcome for all parties.

(To find out more about our Practical Empathy workshop, click here)

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