The Key to Leadership: Empathy

The Key to Leadership: Empathy

Originally posted on 99U.

You can tell a lot about a person by how they run their meetings. Inviting the correct people and creating clear agendas are just the beginning. But are they also demonstrating emotional intelligence? Are they making eye contact and actually paying attention, positively contributing to the conversation in a meaningful way? If we really want to improve how people work together at meetings (and by extension, in the entire organization), we need to develop and rely on our key emotional intelligence competency: empathy. A lack of empathy breeds misunderstanding and mistrust, which can diminish productivity and happiness. It can even topple CEOs.

Empathy, or the ability to experience and align with the thoughts/emotions/experiences of others, is what Annie McKee (author of Primal Leadership) believes is a fundamental construct to leadership. As she explains:

Empathy is a competency that allows you to read people…This isn’t as easy as it seems. Sometimes, the smartest resisters often look like supporters, but they’re not supportive at all. They’re smart, sneaky idea-killers.

Carefully reading people will help you understand the major, and often hidden, conflicts in the group. Hint: These conflicts probably have nothing to do with the topics or decisions being made at the meeting. It is far more likely to be linked to very human dynamics like who is allowed to influence whom: headquarters vs. the field; expats vs. local nationals; and power dynamics between men and women, and among people of various races.

Empathy lets you “see” and manage these power dynamics. Many of us would like to think that these dynamics — and office politics, in general — are beneath us, unimportant, or just for those Machiavellian folks we all dislike. Realistically, though, power is hugely important in groups because it is the real currency in most organizations. And it plays out in meetings. Learning to read how the flow of power is moving and shifting can help you lead the meeting — and everything else.

Empathy is what separates a good leader from a great leader. Great leaders need empathy in order to show their people that they care for their wants, needs, and development. They are key to organizations largely because they are able to effectively nurture relationships – and the most empathetic of leaders recognize the signs of abuse of power (and prevent it from manifesting) well in advance.

The ability to walk in other people’s shoes, to understand their perspectives (not just rationally, but also emotionally) begins with self-awareness. If you’re not sure where you fit on the Empathy-scale, Lou Solomon, author of Say Something Real, suggests asking yourself the following:

  • Are you keeping the small, inconvenient promises that fall outside of the spotlight?
  • Do you invite others into the spotlight?
  • Do you isolate yourself in the decision-making process? Do the decisions you’re making reflect what you truly value?
  • Do you admit your mistakes?
  • Are you the same person at work, at home and in the spotlight?
  • Do you tell yourself there are exceptions or different rules for people like you?

Operationalizing something as complex as empathy can hard, especially since you’ve been told your whole life to “treat people how you want to be treated.” As well-intentioned as The Golden Rule is, it’s fundamental flaw is that it assumes alignment. To bring empathy into your life, focus instead on treating people how they want to be treated. In doing so, you automatically ascertain what the other person values in a relationship or interaction. And you do so without question or judgement. This doesn’t mean making painful compromises or giving in to unreasonable requests.

To truly breath life into your organization and dramatically improve your chances of success, you must be present, aware and empathetic. Meeting people where they are instead of assuming that’s where you are.