Empathy & Leadership

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It’s the ‘soft skill’ that has hard benefits. Empathy is increasingly recognised as the key to leadership success and the cornerstone of emotional intelligence.

In looking at the key skills of the future; creativity, innovation, design, storytelling and collaboration, all require empathy. Innovation and design cannot be done without placing humans at the center and understanding how others use technology. But one area requires the highest levels of empathy – leadership. The importance of empathy in leadership is widely discussed, it is understood to build cohesive teams and work satisfaction. Empathy is important to understand your team, helping them work to peak capacity and productivity and it is essential in understanding your market and customers.


But what is empathy? It is frequently pitted in comparison to sympathy. This explainer provides a breakdown of the difference between the two, which boils down to sympathy being about acknowledging another’s pain and empathy being capable of feeling that pain. And a must watch cartoon explaining empathy narrated by Brene Brown.

In a world where emotional intelligence is beginning to be recognised as the cornerstone of relationship success, empathy is understood as EI’s heartbeat.

How to be an empathetic leader: My father’s advice was “try not to be a total prick” – which is pretty rock solid advice for both leaders and non-leaders. However, it can seem overwhelming to be told to try to be more empathetic. How does one begin to not be a total prick?

Well, the good thing is like other intelligence factors EI can be learnt and improved. One area where it is easily improved is in accepting its importance in your leadership, appreciating the value of meeting your team with empathy. If you are uncertain of the value then check out this article “Empathy: the most valuable thing they teach at HBS” 

So what are the things, the hacks if you will, that empathetic leadership in the workplace can be distilled to:

  • Dad was right, do try to not be a total prick
  • Know yourself and what your emotions and body language are telling you about how you are responding to a situation and learn to extrapolate that to other people, ie know that when you are frustrated or angry your communication becomes stifled, so apply that to others and help them communicate through their frustration. Your emotions are what help you read other people’s.
  • Listen to what your team members are saying and do so actively. Especially listen for feeling words  such as “embarrassed, worried, excited and mirror” those emotions back to them by saying “I understand that you are concerned because of the situation and what I need from you to help the situation is …”
  • Read facial expressions – which is often the value of face-to-face meetings.
  • Be non-judgmental. Of course discern patterns of behavior and attempt to alleviate problems that reoccur but also approach every scenario as a new one with new solutions.



There are of course other key lessons in empathy, and numerous ways to learn it as a skill. One place we can learn more about empathy is from animals. Rats are known to display pro-social behaviors, that is behave in a way that benefits the group over themselves, as well as understanding how their behavior impacts upon others. Here in Science Mag you can read about how “rats forsake chocolate to save a drowning friend”. And of course our best friends, dogs, even display empathy to their humans and each other. Dogs are understood to have the emotional intelligence necessary to appreciate when someone is in pain or unhappy.



I suspect there is an entire course we could run aimed at the executive level based on leadership lessons that can be extrapolated from dogs. But for now I urge you to think like a rat or a dog and question how you could be more empathetic in your leadership role.

If you are in Melbourne over the coming week you may be interested in the School of Life’s event ‘Empathy in Australia.’ Perhaps you want some more dense reading on the topic as it relates to business then you really can’t go past Simon Sinek’s texts:

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