One of the qualities that is least discussed when it comes to defining a great leader is empathy.

Many other aptitudes such as determination and intelligence are often linked to leadership to the detriment of softer skills such as the one discussed in this article, namely empathy.

There is no true leadership without empathy

In simple terms, empathy means: “putting yourself in the other person’s shoes” or “seeing things through someone else’s eyes.”

A formal definition of empathy is the ability to identify and understand another’s situation, feelings, and motives. Basically, it’s our capacity to recognize the concerns the people around us have and interpret their actions accurately.

Simon Sinek, the TED Talk speaker who gave his powerful speech Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Action, talks about how leadership is fundamentally built on strong relationships and altruism in his book “Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t”.

Sinek describes the practices of Marine Corps soldiers whose behavior according to their rank is visibly different than that of the majority of managers in organizations. When it comes to serving their food in the line, the most junior eat first, followed in rank order, with the leaders eating last. This practice isn’t in any rulebook; the Marines just do it because of the way they view the responsibility of  leadership.

An empathetic leader is undoubtedly more valued and respected by his subordinates than someone who is distant and gives orders regardless of his team’s opinion.

Whereas many people think leadership is about rank, power and privilege, Marines believe that true leadership is the willingness to place others’ needs above your own. This may sound like a pressure to make sacrifices, but it should rather be viewed as a way of developing a genuinely caring attitude towards the members of your team.

Arguably, all this sounds good in theory, but how can you get closer to your team on a personal level, while also being focused on the results of your business?

The answer is pretty simple:

be genuine!

Although paying authentic attention to what your employees have to say may seem like an exercise in the beginning, winning their trust and appreciation is worth working out. In this way, your team will be more motivated to work towards the results because they feel a personal incentive to do so.

A common mistake made by those in charge of a team, including myself, is to try to please everyone. Indeed, empathy is not about making huge changes over each and every worker’s concerns, it’s rather about making sure that their concerns are heard and efforts are made to take them into consideration.

Practical tips

The best tool to use in order to have a more heartfelt approach in your leadership style is to adopt the 9 principles taught in Dale Carnegie’s timeless classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People”.

1. Don’t criticize, condemn or complain. Try to have a positive attitude even when times are rough.

2. Give honest, sincere appreciation. Constantly remind people of something that they are particularly good at to boost their self-confidence. More confidence means better performance.

3. Arouse in the other person an eager want. How do you do this? When you make a request make sure to keep the other person’s wants in the back of your mind. Consider and explain to the person what benefits they will receive by doing the job and how it matches their wants.

4. Become genuinely interested in other people. Develop an authentic desire to learn more about your team and it will also help you divide tasks better and be aware of their needs.

5. Smile. It’s contagious. No one likes a grumpy boss anyway.

6. Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language. Use it frequently in conversation so that you can be sure not to forget it.

7. Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves. Let your employees have the spotlight and ask them about their passions and interests.

8. Talk in terms of the other person’s interests. Like principle #3, keep in mind what the other person wants and is interested in. This will make your employees feel validated and cared about.

9. Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely. Genuine encouragement is the key to being a more empathetic leader.

These principles revolve around the fact that empathy does not mean vulnerability or weakness, but instead it is truly about having more compassion towards others. This comes from subtle changes in your way of talking!

Instead of telling someone to go draft a letter that says such-and-such, you might instead ask them “what do you think of drafting a letter that says this and that”?

In “Leaders Eat Last”, Simon Sinek proposes a concept of leadership that has little to do with authority. He says:

true leadership is about empowering others to achieve things they didn’t think possible.

Exceptional organizations prioritize the well-being of their people and, in return, their people give everything they’ve got to protect and advance the well-being of one another and the organization.

Whether we’re leading armies, multinational corporations or a fledgling home-based business, Sinek’s message is the same: “We all have the responsibility to become the leaders we wish we had.” If businesses could adopt this supportive mentality, employees would be more motivated to take bigger risks, because they’d know their colleagues and company would back them up, no matter what.

Do you consider yourself a good leader? Were your leaders always empathetic? How did you feel when they were not? Let me know you thoughts by leaving a comment below!

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    • Hello, Edwin! Thanks for leaving your insight, and we feel honored that you featured us as one of your resources. While it might be easy to set the empathetic culture in a startup, how would you set an empathetic corporate culture in a company that has been operating for, say, a decade?


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