Follow Empathy to Great Leadership

Leadership is caring about the people whom you lead. It involves putting the needs of others first. Leaders should be interested in knowing how the people they are leading are faring and what their needs are. How would they like to be treated? What are their feelings? These are the questions leaders should be asking themselves. Anybody who puts self-interest first, failing to think about the needs of others, does not qualify to be referred to as a leader. Those who are in the position of leadership without empathy fail the test of leadership.

Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, summed up the purpose of empathy in the workplace in his book, “Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul”:

“Grow with discipline. Balance intuition with rigor. Innovate around the core. Don’t embrace the status quo. Find new ways to see. Never expect a silver bullet. Get your hands dirty.Listen with empathy and overcommunicate with transparency. Tell your story, refusing to let others define you. Use authentic experiences to inspire. Stick to your values, they are your foundation. Hold people accountable, but give them the tools to succeed. Make the tough choices; it’s how you execute that counts. Be decisive in times of crisis. Be nimble. Find truth in trials and lessons in mistakes. Be responsible for what you see, hear and do. Believe.” 

A good leader, apart from having the technical skills and a supportive IQ, must possess emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the ability or the capacity to use emotions pro actively, both personal emotions as well as those of the associates and people being led. It is a tool for enhancing reasoning as well as decision-making. Without emotional intelligence, any global leader will not make it to be a “great” leader, even with the best training that can be acquired and an incisive and analytical mind that comes up with the smartest ideas. Emotional intelligence is what will make the leader reach the level of greatness, serve all with diligence and successfully lead a team or corporation towards achieving its goal.

Daniel Goleman — author of “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ” and the Harvard Business Review article “What Makes a Leader?”— brought the term “emotional intelligence” to the forefront with his extensive explorations. He states that success of any leader does not entirely depend on the practical proficiencies or intellect but to a greater extent on management of emotions.

Empathy is one of the five aspects of emotional intelligence as identified by Goleman. According to Goleman, this pillar is prone to dismissal and misconstrue, but it has a concrete and clear purpose. Empathy is not taking others’ emotions as one’s own or even an attempt to please all — it involves understanding other people’s emotions and needs, and communicating them effectively.

Global leaders must show that they understand what others feel and aim toward empowering them to overcome challenges. Leaders should go beyond sympathy, proactively providing a path for others to follow and overcome their challenges. Leaders should ensure that their employees are satisfied, feel respected and that their point of view is heard and considered. Employee morale and employee engagement scores have a huge effect on how people feel about an organization and its ultimate performance. Empathy is what drives engagement; without it, an organization’s peak performance will not be realized.

Leaders’ empathy can be seen in how they relates with those whom they lead. The leader can hear and read between the lines, set mechanisms in place to listen and has a clear understanding on what others need and proactively aims at directing toward attainment of the needs.

An empathetic leader will listen to what others have to say and carefully consider their point of view as well as make them feel part of the decision-making process. Leaders allow participation, acknowledge that no one has the monopoly of knowledge and put others’ thoughts and ideas into consideration. An empathetic leader inspires, helps others to succeed and builds a strong team — further aiding in realization of the goals of the organization.

Global leadership requires technical know-how, but without emotional intelligence, chances of attaining the organizational goals and objectives will only remain an illusion. Leaders need to have all the aspects of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. Armed with these pillars, any leader is on path to greatness.

This article originally appeared in Diversity Executive's sister publication, Chief Learning Officer.