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The Most Needed Leadership Skill Is Also The Most Elusive

The pandemic has produced a slew of articles and blogs about what this all means for leadership, and you don’t need to read too far before “empathy” appears as one of the all important capabilities.

But when we think about what being empathic as a leader really means, or requires, there are some important distinctions to make which can be instrumental in the impact of empathy.

At the heart of this is the risk that empathy is equated to the ability to relate to someone’s situation. For example, here’s an exchange between team member Emma and her line manager Sarah:


Emma  : “Oh, I have had a nightmare getting [customer x] to sign off the project; they are so demanding.”

Sarah : “I am really sorry to hear that, it sounds very frustrating. I had a similar situation with that client a couple of years ago, and I had a few sleepless night, so I know what you are going through.”


On face value it seems to tick the empathy box. Sarah is reflecting back, saying what she is hearing, sharing an experience, all seem to be important.

But the reality is that in attempting to be empathic, Sarah is appropriating Emma’s experience – “I know how you feel.” At best it might have a short term impact of reassuring Emma that Sarah has acknowledged her situation, but in attempting to be empathic, Sarah is compromising that vital skill of the leader…listening.

As leaders we have been institutionalised to believe that our role is to have an answer or something to say in any given situation, so when a colleague expresses frustration like this, we instinctively lean in rather than lean out. And once we’ve shown our “empathy”, we want to follow up with some ideas about how to solve the problem. “Let me tell you about what made the difference for me.”

Empathy is defined by Collins as Empathy “the ability to share another person's feelings and emotions as if they were your own.”

So for a leader, the route to empathy is more listening. Instead of leaning in to explain that we know how someone feels, we need to lean back and give people the opportunity to share their story, to talk about what has happened and what the impact has been.

To do this, leaders also need to create a safe environment to make it easy for people to share all the facts and emotions. We can do this, through demonstrating our own vulnerability – not always having the answers, asking for help, being honest when things go wrong.

And most of all, we demonstrate empathy by showing that we actually care about other people.  In many respects we remain rooted in the leadership language of the industrial era, in which physical rather than cognitive work dominated. Now that the brain has become the most important muscle in a team, the job of leaders is to create the optimum conditions for the brain to prosper, and empathy – showing a willingness and commitment to understand someone else’s position is fundamental to that.

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