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All Great Leaders Have Empathy

It’s ironic that when we’re interviewing for leadership roles, we tend to prefer people with a strong presence and confidence. Yet, the greatest leaders in modern history -- people like Gandhi and Mandella, were known for their support of others. They were willing to sacrifice themselves for the betterment of the people they represented. This is the embodiment of empathy.

Have you ever had the experience of harboring some uncomfortable feelings that you thought you were hiding well, and someone you just met asks you if you’re okay? That’s empathy in action. We’re led to believe that empathy is something you either have or you don’t, and that’s it. I’m here to tell you that empathy can be learned. We may never know for sure, but empathy may have little to do with genetics. If that’s the case, we all learned however much of it we have.

Leaders should get more. Why is empathy so important to great leadership?

  1. If you can read people’s emotions, you can respond to them in a caring manner. Truly caring about people is a leader’s secret weapon. People will do amazing things for people who care about them as a whole person.

  2. When things are going poorly for someone, they often want to bear the responsibility for improving the situation without invoking help from their leaders. They fear it will make them look weak or incompetent. Being able to observe that internal struggle allows you to support said person and guide them through their issues.

  3. Group morale ebbs and flows. When a group struggles, like individuals, they won’t ask for help until all else fails. Empathetic leaders can sense the struggle and offer support to get the group moving again.

  4. People may have ideas or thoughts that they’d like to share but are reluctant to do so because they may not be popular or welcome. As a leader, you want to encourage out-of-the-box thinking. If you can read that someone is holding back, you can encourage them to share.

There’s undoubtedly much more. Hopefully, these give you a sense of the power empathy has to keep you in touch with the organization and its people. Empathy is like having the lights shining in every corner. Even more, it can be like X-ray vision—seeing inside the soul of people, groups, and your organization.

How do you improve empathy? The same way you improve any skill: you learn what it is, and then you practice it until you get better. Research shows that people with high levels of empathy can read micro-expressions on faces. They can feel tension in a room. Maybe it is a silence that lasted a little too long or a slight hesitation in responding. These microscopic behaviors are the key to empathy.

Study materials help you identify these things. Once you understand what they are, you can start practicing noticing them in your environment. If you stay with it, it will eventually become second nature. You will have elevated your empathy. The lights come on, and a new level of clarity is achieved.


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