Do unto others: The importance of empathy in leadership


Words by: Ricky Sheward

If I asked you to make a list of words that described great leadership, what would be on your list? Would it look like this list by the members of LinkedIn’s Executive Suite? The usual suspects fill the page. Accountable, courageous, ethical, responsible.

But what about Empathic? You know, the ability to understand and share another’s feelings; to put yourself in another’s shoes, metaphorically. “Empathy? What? The bleeding-heart, namby-pamby, impotent, feeling-based thing? No sir! True leadership is strong, decisive and commanding, just like the military.” Well, imaginary voice in my head, thanks for bringing up the military because if you’re looking for a prime example of the importance of empathy in leadership, look no further than the U.S. Marine Corps.

In his book, Leaders Eat Last: Why some teams pull together and others don’t, Simon Sinek relates how the Marines organise themselves in the mess hall. The newer recruits eat first and it follows the chain of command down with the most senior members eating last. Big deal, you might say. But the meaning inherent in this gesture goes far deeper than you might expect.

You see, when it comes to leadership, understand this: no matter the community, the network, the group, the tribe, you are dealing with people, not tools. People, with emotions, problems, concerns. Somewhere along the way, we forget this fact. For some strange reason, conventional wisdom seems to be that empathy is a weakness.

A study in the Journal of Business Ethics reveals that empathy is considered the least important factor in leaders by MBA students, who reasoned that empathy interferes with rational and ethical decision-making, made them look weak or considered empathy the same as pity.

But riddle me this:

How can you be ethical without understanding the impact your decisions will have on people?

How can you be motivational without understanding why someone needs motivation?

How can you be compassionate without understanding why someone needs compassion in the first place?

Empathy is not a weakness. Empathy leads to insight. Empathy leads to inclusiveness. Empathy leads to motivation.

The Center for Creative Leadership released this white paper on the benefits of empathic leadership. Employees perform better under this leadership style. They’re more motivated. Why? Because you are fostering a sense of belonging! You are building a community. We like to help our groups. It makes us feel good! Empathy doesn’t just apply to negative emotions. Empathy also means sharing in another’s joy and success. If the team does well, you feel good! Everyone joins in in that sense of achievement, which in turn drives us to reclaim that feeling later on. It’s actually biological (Serotonin and Oxytocin, for those interested.) And here’s the best bit…

You can learn empathy.

It is a skill. And, like any skill, gets stronger the more you practice it. It doesn’t take money. You don’t have to travel around the world and seek zen masters from the four cardinal points. It just takes time. Time to sit down and listen. Don’t fix, just listen. Understand where they’re coming from. Instead of email, pick up the phone; if you’re in the same office, walk over and answer a question in person. You’re too busy? If you had time to do a round of emails with that person on a single topic, you had time to have a quick chat and get it sorted.

We here at Milaana believe in a future of empathic leaders. Doing research for this topic, I came across a few great resources that I want to share with you. I hope you find inspiration in them; after all; you’re not the leaders of tomorrow. You’re the leaders now.

ErnestHemmingwayFurther Resources on Empathy


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