Empathy: A Necessary Component to Great Leadership

It is fairly easy to tell who will make a great leader. It’s easily recognizable. It’s apparent. It’s palpable. It’s obvious. Leaders who have a tremendous capacity for empathy always triumph.

I agree with the U.S. Army’s Field Manual on Leader Development, which is considered one of the best resources on leadership. The manual repeatedly insists that empathy is essential for successful leadership.

Empathy enables you to know if the people you’re trying to reach are actually reached. It allows you to predict what kind of effect your decisions and actions will have on your people. Without empathy, you can’t build a team or nurture leadership within your ranks. You will not inspire followers or elicit loyalty. Empathy allows you to know people’s desires and understand what risks they are or aren’t willing to take.

Empathy also allows you to hear the “unsaid” — that which is withheld, but the feelings remain in the background. Empathy enables you to acknowledge those emotions and what’s keeping them imprisoned. Empathy reveals what’s behind the mask they’re wearing. Empathy exposes their very real — yet undeclared — motives.

Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s experience, perspective, and emotions. Also known as “vicarious introspection,” it’s described as the ability to put yourself in another person’s place. But make sure you are assessing how they would feel in their shoes, not how you would feel in their shoes. That is the hard part.

Empathy gives you access to another person’s perspective. It produces a safe space for the other to speak what is true for people. Empathy generates a sanctuary allowing more truth be told. Empathy dramatically reduces confrontation, conflict, and hostility.

What’s behind empathy?

I’ve found that the underpinnings of empathy are self-awareness, trust, critical thinking, and regulation. The highest element of these four is self-awareness; the conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives, and desires.

Commitment shows up in two places: the calendar and the checkbook. It’s easy to discover someone’s level of commitment to self-awareness by looking here. Inquiry into whether they spend their time and money on self-discovery is quickly evident.

Although they spend time with peers in various groups, the depth of true self-revelation, self-examination, it’s rare to see the discomfort required for these practices. Most of their conversations drift quickly into strategy and tactics, which feel far more comfortable than taking a hard look at yourself and then disclosing it to others.

Most leaders encountered are “covert authoritarians.” Covert authoritarian leaders have an unbending will to get their way but pretend to be empathetic. It’s a con. A sham. A ploy. Their overriding intent is to get their way. But highly successful leaders focus first and foremost on building trust, and the only effective way to achieve trust is through real empathy.

Leadership’s power and success is in direct relation to a person’s capacity to be empathetic. The leader must continue to uncover what gets in their way of being empathetic. To achieve greater levels of empathy requires the leader to self-reveal. The willingness to go “deep.” The readiness to expose dark secrets about themselves — and that is very arduous and very uncomfortable work.

Challenges to leadership

The capacity to be empathetic is the biggest leadership challenge. From the Bible to Shakespeare, there is talk about the virtues of “thee before thou.” Most leaders are about “me before them,” and that is the toughest barrier to address when a leader is hoping to become empathetic.

An empathetic listening requires an ability to be able to be in someone else’s skin, feel what they feel, understand without judgment what they are trying to express. The ability to recreate, reconstruct, directly know what’s going on for the other person is the degree you can be empathetic.

How truly empathetic are you? Or, are you running a scam thinking people will believe you really care as you push forward with your agenda?

— Marc