Empathy is the #1 Leadership Skill: Why Understanding Others is Key to Effective Leadership

Then-Governor Bill Clinton famously told a voter on the campaign trail in 1992, “I feel your pain.” 

Whether you’re a fan or not, it’s undeniable that he successfully conveyed a sense of true empathy for the average voter and rode that wave all the way to 370 electoral votes.

This is something any leader is wise to emulate – in a time when we are so focused on ourselves, one of the most important leadership skills is the ability to express empathy, or the ability to stand in the shoes of others.

We humans are the most social creatures on the planet.  Relationships and connections with others are vital to our health and well-being.  Introverts and extroverts alike need healthy connections and relationships to thrive.  Relationships are also the cornerstone of any career and a leader’s success.  I’ve seen firsthand in my years as a coach and executive how empathy is crucial to building strong relationships with team members, colleagues, and stakeholders.  

You’ve undoubtedly seen examples yourself. A leader tries to support their own case for an unpopular decision and ends up saying something that would make them cringe if they heard it played back to them.  

I remember a time when I made such a gaffe myself. I was talking with an employee about a layoff that just happened, and she mentioned the circumstances being particularly difficult for one of the employees being terminated.  I made the most embarrassing mistake of trying to suggest it was also hard for me.  

Yikes!  It’s not a mark of bad leadership to lay off staff; but it is a failure when you project a detachment from the emotional experience that dismissal causes. Think of how this impacts the remaining staff.  Think of how that will impact company performance.

Think of it this way; in its simplest form, leadership is about getting people to follow you, your ideas, and your vision. Lots of people have lots of good ideas and goals. What separates good leaders is their ability to connect with others in order to get their buy-in, to get them to adopt your ideas, and motivate them to work toward your goals as if they are their own. Connecting in a meaningful and lasting way is only done by showing others you hear and see them, you understand them.  This is also the best way to advance your career, build better relationships with your partner, kids, everyone around you.

Connection is the basis of empathy.  

I believe the key to doing this well is to work at it – to develop this habit a little each day.  There are no quick fixes for developing new leadership habits and skills.  No one is born with all the skills needed for great leadership.  This is especially true in situations where people are not doing what you want, or even working counter to your goals.  

One good exercise is to assume and believe that if you had substantially the same childhood, background, and experiences as the other person, you would behave the same way.  This will immediately allow the other person to see your perspective much more clearly and improve your ability to connect and lead.  By doing this you are not excusing bad behavior and you are not supporting something you don’t agree with.  You are creating a deeper connection that will greatly enhance your ability to influence a different outcome.

However, it’s easier said than done; there are also common barriers to empathy that leaders must be aware of and work to overcome.

 These can include: 

  1. Attachments to rigid expectations, which can cause a leader to be too transactional, losing sight of the reality that we work with people each day, in all their messy humanity. An example is being unbending on deadlines when your team may have issues out of their control emerge.

  2. Arrogance – the mindset that says, “They don’t know what they’re talking about, I know best.”  Even the most arrogant among us, if pressed, would have to agree that there must be some better ideas than theirs somewhere in a group of 50, 500, or 50,000 employees.

  3. Low self-esteem which, perhaps counterintuitively, leaves little room for empathy for others.  

  4. Assuming that your team will tell you if you are making mistakes, or they will forgive you. In truth, if you haven’t displayed empathy to those around you, they aren’t likely to return the favor.

 So, what can you do on a more substantive level to foster a greater sense of empathy with your teams? Leaders can cultivate empathy in themselves by:

  1. Practicing listening with the intent of having your mind changed.  Really try to see if they can change your mind.  Help them do this with probing questions.  

  2. Asking more questions and digging deeper into following up, rather than practicing one-way communications. Instead of trying to impress others, set out to be impressed by others.

  3. Observing behaviors in others without judgment – this can be really hard, but some say it’s the highest form of human wisdom.  Don’t judge, label, or sort into the “right” and “wrong” buckets.  Just observe.  This works even better when you are noticing your own behaviors and emotions.

  4. “Doing the work” to deepen your own self-understanding. Get feedback on yourself and don’t give into the temptation to defend yourself, but simply absorb it as part of the journey to greater peace and ease.

  5. When you are going into a meeting or sending an important communication make a list of all the different people (or groups of people) and spend time writing down how they might react.  Actually write it down. What will they like, and not like about what you will say?  Put yourself in their shoes, what would you feel about what you’re saying?  

And finally – don’t worry as much about arguing your point as much as finding a way to understand theirs. This will be infinitely more effective.

These small, actionable steps can help over time to build empathy and understanding, which will lead to stronger relationships and better outcomes.

Empathy is not just important for leaders and their team members, but also for building the overall work culture. Remember, as Peter Drucker famously preached, culture eats strategy for breakfast. To which I would add, culture issues will devour even the most brilliant strategy, every time. Most leaders don’t realize this, although they give lip service to culture. They still think brilliant strategists and consultants can save their company. Not so if the culture isn’t conducive to fostering trust and mutual respect. Empathy is the secret sauce to high-performing cultures; it energizes people, helps them forgive your mistakes, makes them feel appreciated and heard. Empathy fosters trust, and trust = performance.

 The good news is that empathy is a critical leadership skill that can be learned, and it is the #1 skill that separates good leaders from great ones. When leaders practice empathy, they can connect with their team in a meaningful and lasting way, leading to a positive work culture and better organizational performance.