The Empathetic Leader

Fortune 100 company had me come to one of their facilities last year to assess the work environment and leadership climate.  I was an unknown quantity to the line workers I would be conducting a focus group with. 

At our first meeting, as I surveyed the eyes of the workers who were staring at me, I opened by saying, “I want to thank all of you. You work in very hazardous conditions at this plant. The nature of the work environment is inherently dangerous and there are a lot of ways you could lose a hand, an arm, or even your life. You do this not just for the money, but because the equipment you manufacture is important for our country’s national security. You should all be very proud of the work you do.”

I could sense the whole atmosphere in that room soften. Some of the workers nodded, and a grateful smile appeared on many of their faces, replacing the emotionless look they had in their eyes.

I believe that a good leader should spend more time reading people and less time reading reports.  What I mean by this is that a leader must take the time to get out and look their followers in the eye to perceive their true feelings and emotions. Leaders must listen closely in order to hear how their followers are feeling.  Leaders must also communicate in a way that demonstrates respect and understanding of the challenges their followers deal with on a day to day basis.

Develop Internal Attributes First

Daniel Goleman researched and wrote about the competencies of what he called “emotional intelligence”.  According to Goleman, one must develop the internally focused competencies of self-awareness, self-control, and the ability to shift from negative feelings to more positive ones before they could develop the more externally focused competency of empathy.

If leaders cannot get in touch with their own feelings it will be impossible to understand the feelings of others. Leaders must practice self-awareness and mindfulness.  There are several techniques leaders could use in order to develop the internal attribute of self-awareness. Journaling is a good technique.  Leaders can take time at the conclusion of a day to capture their thoughts and perspectives in a journal.  The focus should be on one’s feelings and should include some perspective on their emotional reaction to events that occurred throughout the day.

Meditation is also effective. This is about spending some quiet time to allow your mind to reboot itself.  Some could meditate when sitting quietly.  I find that I meditate best when walking or running alone.  I have gotten into the habit of going out for a quiet walk the first thing each morning. When I walk or run, I always gain fresh perspectives.

Once one develops self-awareness, one can then become better at controlling their emotions.  Followers look to leaders to be stable when things get chaotic. Controlling emotions has many organizational and societal benefits, not to mention the advantage for the leader himself or herself.

I remember when I was a young and inexperienced leader, I acted out in front of a group of my followers, showing great displeasure, not with them, but with a situation we were dealing with. I ranted and raved and threw my notebook across the room.  As an inexperienced leader, I thought this would demonstrate to my followers that I was “all in”. Instead, when I saw the negative reaction of my followers, I realized this was a poor technique.

My team was looking for me to be a rock rather than a crumbling pile of sand. I learned quickly that a leader instills confidence when acting calmly rather than reacting in a wild manner.  Followers want the leader to remain stable and firm during a storm.

Self-aware people are better able to adjust their attitude and ultimately developing the power to shift from negative emotions to a more positive outlook.  In some cases, attitude is about the only thing we can control, and if we have not developed that ability things get much tougher.

 The Vulnerability Factor

Leaders must have the courage to allow themselves to be vulnerable by allowing their followers to get to know the leader’s story and allow the team to see the human side of the leader.  I am not suggesting that leaders must bare one’s soul. However, leaders should get comfortable with sharing with followers what they are thinking and feeling when appropriate.  I have found that when I share my views with people, they are more prone to share what they are thinking with me. This sharing of information is very helpful in that it facilitates understanding.

 Displaying Empathy

Empathy is an essential element of being a servant leader.  Empathetic leaders can sense what their followers are feeling. This eliminates tone-deafness and the perception that leaders do not understand, or worse yet the perception that the leader does not care.  When followers think a leader does not care they will stop bring forth their problems and issues.  Colin Powell said, “the day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them.”

Empathy is the capacity to show followers you care and give a darn about them. A leader must understand how followers feel and what their issues are in order to provide the resources that allow followers to do their job more effectively and increase the probability of mission accomplishment.

Implied here is that leaders must get out from behind their desks and engage their teams. Leaders must conduct face-to-face engagements and look into the eyes of their followers.  Some leaders believe that the rank and file will not be open and truthful when the leader asks questions about how things are going, but I have rarely found that to be the case.  If leaders have been authentic, have cultivated a level of trust, and have demonstrated that they want to remove obstacles from the path of those on the front line, people will be forthright with their comments and feedback.

Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of another.  When a leader shows that they understand one’s feelings it is a sign of respect.  Leaders must be able to demonstrate empathy in one-on-one situations or when they are engaging a group.  The empathy displayed must be authentic and not used as a ploy.  When leaders display false empathy, most people could see through that, and the result is broken trust. Conversely, when leaders are sincerely empathetic, trust is strengthened.  After all, most people simply want leaders to understand their plight, even if nothing could be done about it. Sometimes empathy is about choosing the right words. Sometimes it is a pat on the back or a hug. But always it must be a sincere display of understanding.

A Final Word on Empathy

Empathy is about understanding other’s feelings. However, empathy is not sympathy and it is not necessarily about feeling sorry for someone.  Leaders must understand that as they empathize with someone, they still may have to discipline that person.  Being an empathetic leader is not being a pushover. Leaders are still expected to enforce standards.  Those leaders than can be empathetic and still be just and firm at the same time are usually the leaders that earn respect. At the end of the day, respect is more important than popularity.

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