Empathetic Leadership

Consider the words of Henry David Thoreau: “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” Many agree that empathy is one of the most important leadership skills. It involves taking a genuine interest in others and being open to other points of view. 

However, empathy often does not happen organically or by accident. The ability to empathize — in fact the awareness of the need to empathize — is something we MUST remind ourselves to do. So, as a leader, how can we reprogram our mind and leadership approach to make empathy a priority? Consider the following:

  • Look outward. One of the biggest dangers in the leadership and communication game is to become so consumed with our own reality that we become oblivious to the reality of those around us. We lose the ability and willingness to even try to empathize with others, and as a result, our relationships suffer. When we later find out what was really going on with the other person, we often regret our initial reaction and say to ourselves, “If I had only known what was happening, I wouldn’t have acted that way.”
  • Benefit of the doubt. If you are interacting with someone and he seems despondent or not particularly friendly, ask yourself what could be going on that might cause such a reaction? Give that person the benefit of the doubt. Become more “other centered” in your thinking and your communication and ask the person some open-ended questions regarding what he is feeling. Give him the option of opening up. By showing concern or interest in others, we are communicating in a more empathetic fashion. 
  • Be selfless. As leaders, especially as we are working our way up in an organization, we can become “selfish” as a defense mechanism. It is not intentional or malicious, but instead we focus on ourselves and doing those things that will elevate our status within the company. However, the great leaders show their true abilities when they put others first and are “selfless.” In a meeting, recognize a team member for the work he or she did on a project. If someone thanks you for a report you created, be sure to acknowledge the work of the other contributors. No one likes a person who always says, “Hey look at me and all I did.” Include others in your success. 
  • Genuinely care. A client once asked me, “Steve, can you tell me how to be perceived by others as if I care about them?” To which I asked, “Bob, do you actually care about them?” He responded, “Well, no, but I want them to believe that I do.” Acting as if you care about someone and actually being invested in how they are feeling and what is going on in their lives are two different things. Make a commitment to listen, truly listen, and to be there for those on your team. Trust me, if you are faking that you care about them, they will notice.
  • Be kind. As leaders, our patience can be tested. Our expectations may not be met. Deadlines are missed. When these moments happen, remind yourself to be kind. Do a little digging to understand your employees’ behaviors and what tools they may be lacking to get the job done. What more can and should you be doing to put them in the best place to succeed. Simply put, instead of approaching the situation from a place of anger, frustration, or resentment, come from a place of kindness and understanding and, yes, empathy. This will build trust within your team and will lead to increased work productivity and efficiency in the long run.
Steve Adubato, PhD, is the author of five books including, "Lessons in Leadership.” His sixth book, "Lessons in Leadership 2.0: The Tough Stuff," will be released in summer 2023. He is an Emmy® Award-winning anchor with programs airing on Thirteen/WNET (PBS) and NJ PBS. He has also appeared on CNN, NPR and NBC’s Today show. Steve Adubato's "Lessons in Leadership" video podcast with co-host Mary Gamba airs Sundays at 10:00 a.m. on News 12+. For more information visit www.Stand-Deliver.com