Leaders and Empathy (revisited)

Katherine Bell, at HBR’s Conversation Starter blog, weighs in on empathy in “Empathy: Not Such a Soft Skill“. She also questions the NY Times article why leaders can’t be both tough and empathetic and still be successful, which caught my attention earlier through Dan McCarthy’s Great Leadership blog.

Hard to believe, but Ms. Bell and I didn’t communicate before she wrote her post – and yet we both agreed that it is possible for successful leaders to be BOTH tough AND empathetic.

I must admit that I do prefer the definition from Management Research Group’s Leadership Effectiveness Analysis (“LEA 360”, a 360 instrument that I administer to clients): “Demonstrating an active concern for people and their needs by forming close and supportive reltationships with others”.

This instrument uses 22 competencies to measure a leader’s effectiveness, empathy being one of what could be termed the “softer skills” (this instrument, in my mind, is extremely balanced between the softer competencies and the tougher ones), yet essential if a leader is going to be effective.

As I am fond of reminding anyone who will listen: “leadership is all about relationships”. A leader can demonstrate (and should) a whole lot of other hard skills, but if he looks around and nobody is following him – he isn’t leading.

A leader gains followers and gets the work done through developing close and supportive relationships with others. Period. I have no doubt that those who score low on the empathy competency will not be successful over the long run (perhaps they will enjoy some success over the short run).

My question: how does a leader who lacks empathy in the way that the Oxford dictionary defines,* or in the way that the LEA 360 defines above, develop it? I have a few ideas. Care to add yours?

*The power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

2 comments on “Leaders and Empathy (revisited)

  1. Excellent question, Mary Jo. I couldn't agree with you more in your statement that leadership is about relationships.
    Obviously, awareness is the first step. People cannot change until they realize their need. Sometimes, it takes a crisis of some kind to spark that awareness.
    After that awareness is established, I think a person can seek out role models and mentors to help them develop the soft skills they need. As you discussed in a previous post, developing skills like these takes a lot of practice, trial and error, and openness to feedback.

  2. Great advice Becky. I have to shamelessly add that a coach can also help a leader develop the empathy they may lack. I have a former client who might agree with the "crisis" part – good insight. Already a good leader, it was a crisis that sparked his manager to suggest he work with a coach.

    I asked him how he was able to develop empathy (which he didn't have previously). He said that by being intentional to listening "beyond the words" to others (for emotions, context, etc.), he was able develop empathy. Interviews with individuals around him after months of our work together indicated that, indeed, he had changed in this area. This change made a significant difference in his ability to get results, as well as in his life.

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