Authentic Leadership and the Practice of Empathy

One of the fundamental elements of authentic leadership — providing leadership that inspires, motivates, and raises people up — is trust. And one of the core ingredients in establishing trust is empathy.

“I Really Feel My Boss Cares About Me”

Empathy is the capacity to recognize and relate to the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of another person. Empathy helps us “experience” another person’s point-of-view, not just our own.

Developing empathy can be difficult for organizational leaders. After all, many executives get to the top as a result of their superior analytical skills, subject matter expertise, and personal drive for accomplishment and recognition. Many have never had the need or desire to walk a mile in another’s shoes.

Characteristics of Emotional Intelligence, such as Empathy, Matter

Moving from the role of an authoritative expert or controlling supervisor to a genuine leader requires strengthening emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is a way of thinking about the capacity you have to successfully manage yourself and your relationships, such as adaptability, emotional self-awareness, managing conflict, and empathy. Awareness of these characteristics is necessary but not enough: acting on your awareness is what builds and demonstrates emotional intelligence.

Executive coaches commonly work with their clients to develop skills such as emotional intelligence. And, perhaps more than ever, emotional intelligence correlates strongly with leadership effectiveness. Your team may be working from home and dealing with a wide range of stressors. They may be concerned about the health and well-being of their family; their relationships; their job; their retirement savings. In such an uncertain environment, a lack of empathy will result in resentment and mistrust, and the development of a “me-first” attitude among your employees.

The Benefits of Empathy

Employees who believe their supervisor cares only about themself will not view them as a leader — just someone who happens to have authority over them. Improving your ability to empathize:

  • Builds stronger, positive, more productive interpersonal relationships
  • Supports leadership that motivates and inspires
  • Increases levels of trust in all team, departmental, and organizational settings
  • Empathy (and in turn, trust) correlates strongly to high performing teams
  • Difficult or potentially unpopular decisions will be more readily accepted by employees if they believe their situation and point-of-view is genuinely understood, respected, and taken into consideration
  • Being empathetic helps leaders creatively recognize options and alternative courses of action that they may not otherwise have considered

Build Your Capacity to Empathize

There are numerous techniques and practices available to help leaders strengthen their awareness and ability to empathize with others. Consider these approaches to start:

  • Seek to engage regularly with people who are different than you are — not only in terms of age, race, gender, or functional skill set, but with people who think differently than you do, and may have different values or priorities. Connecting with diverse individuals exposes you to alternative points-of-view. When you engage with them, seek to understand their view, rather than looking for flaws, or analyzing how different their ideas are from yours. Try to drop your evaluation of their ideas, and get curious about understanding them.
  • Meditation and mindfulness builds focus and attention, helping you improve your ability to empathize — particularly in more stressful situations where your emotional default setting might easily result in attitudes and behaviors based on your own assumptions, needs, and point-of-view.
  • Many have noted that reading novels is an effective way to mentally step into and empathize with the situation, feelings, experiences, and perspective of others. 
  • As with many things in life, actively practicing the mindset of empathy creates intellectual muscle memory and makes us better at it over time.

“My supervisor understands and respects my situation, and wants to see me achieve at the highest levels possible. I am excited to be working for them.” Now there’s a leader you want, especially when times are tough.

For more about empathy and leadership, read Arden Coaching’s blog, “Empathy: Leading From the Inside of Another’s World.”

To learn more about how executive coaching can help you strengthen your emotional intelligence, including empathy, to become a better leader, contact Arden Coaching at [email protected] or 646.684.3777.