A Timely Reminder Of The Power Of Empathy In Leadership

This week's US election day provides a unique backdrop on which to illustrate the importance of empathy in today's leadership.

No matter where you live, there’s no question that the big story this week is the arrival of the US election and who the American public has decided to serve their country as their next President. For those outside of the US, it’s been both an interesting and troubling journey the US electorate has been put through, especially in its final few months.

Although I’m Canadian, it’s easy to relate to and understand the frustration and dismay many Americans have felt over the course of this election period, along with a good dose of wariness for what lies ahead after the election is over, regardless of who wins.

And yet, this current US election does provide an important lesson for leaders everywhere of just how important empathy is becoming to our ability to lead, as we’ve been given a concrete example of just how quickly things can fall apart when we divide people into groups of “us” versus “them”.

And to be clear, politics is not the only domain where this happens. All of us have had the experience of working with someone we don’t like, and sometimes even someone who we feel – or even know – is working to undermine our authority or credibility in the eyes of our co-workers or those we lead.

And in those circumstances, it becomes very easy for us to delineate those we view to be in “our camp” and those who we look upon with doubt and mistrust because they align themselves with those we dislike.

But what this past US election has shown us is that if we allow those feelings to fester, if we choose to allow others to exploit and drive that wedge that separates people based on what we lack in common with one another, we will end up not only with a more hostile work environment, but we will be permitting conditions to take hold that will make it even more difficult for our employees to get things done.

And this is why emotional intelligence and in particular, empathy, has become so critical to our ability to effectively lead others – empathy allows us to bridge the gap between how we see things and how others experience them [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

Through our empathy, we’re able to move beyond the binary attitude of “I’m right/you’re wrong” which can impede any initiative from moving forward, to one that’s driven by the desire to discover that common ground we share with one another so that we can promote collaboration and foster sustainable growth.

It’s a truth that becomes all the more obvious when we remember that the key to your organization’s success and future prosperity is no longer based solely on the processes and technologies found within your company’s walls, but within the talents, insights, and experiences of those you lead. Something that one can tap into only if we create conditions where people feel connected to what they do and to those around them, as well as being a part of the shared purpose that defines your collective efforts.

But how do we know if we’re truly being empathetic in our leadership? How can we tell if we’re creating conditions that allow all of our employees to succeed and thrive, as opposed to a select few like our ‘star players’ or those we personally relate to?

Interestingly, part of that answer was made evident this weekend when my wife and I watched Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln”. While the film eerily mirrored some of the social issues dogging the present-day US election, there were several moments that illustrated why Lincoln remains a revered US president for all Americans, and not the tyrannical despot that his contemporary political foes claimed him to be.

One such moment was when Lincoln went to an army hospital to visit Union soldiers who were wounded in one of the battles of the American Civil War. As he goes about greeting the soldiers, Lincoln asks them to tell him their names so he can address them personally and as he said ‘know who I’m talking with’.

And throughout the film, we see everyday people walking up to Lincoln telling them about their issues and concerns and every time, Lincoln takes a moment to hear and understand their point of view.

But it wasn’t just when he was approached by everyday people that Lincoln had this outward focus. Early on in the film, we see him discussing with his cabinet his concerns about whether he has overreached his authority through his Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that captured slaves would be set free.

Lincoln speaks of the slippery slope his proclamation has created in how he’s using powers from the Constitution to bypass the courts so he can begin the process of putting an end to slavery throughout the United States.

When one of his cabinet ministers asks how can Lincoln then deny that he’s not the dictator the opposing Democratic Party claims him to be, Lincoln replies that it’s the people who keep him in check. He goes on to point out how he made his Emancipation Proclamation a year and a half before his second election, so that people had a chance to think about it and let him know whether they thought he was right or wrong about his decree.

And for Lincoln, the fact that they not only re-elected him to a second term, but gave his Republican party a majority in Congress showed him that they supported his vision for their country and how he plans to go about making it a reality. It’s a great scene and no doubt one of the reasons why Daniel-Day Lewis won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal.

What each of these scenes demonstrate is how empathy in leadership is about listening and understanding the needs of everyone you serve [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. Now, to be clear here, that doesn’t mean that we have to agree with everyone, or that we are now bound to do something about what they’re telling us. Instead, this is about addressing a common frustration that a majority of employees have – namely, of feeling like they’re not heard and understood by those in charge.

And far from being a nice or altruistic measure, there are concrete benefits for why leaders should be employing a greater sense of empathy in how they lead. For starters, by being more attentive to those under your care, it becomes easier to know where to focus your efforts to help them become more effective and ultimately succeed in their efforts. In other words, empathy in leadership builds trust because employees see that we’re aware of their real needs [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

Of course, we have to be honest here in admitting that while we might be hardwired to exhibit empathy, being empathetic is hard because it’s not always easy to foster understanding with those around us [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]. Indeed, it’s not always easy to understand or relate to why one of your employees behaves or sees things a certain way.

But this is why leaders need to develop stronger listening and awareness skills, so we can better understand and relate to the realities our employees face, as well as what they need from us as their leader in order to feel like their work matters.

Of course, in light of today’s faster-paced, increasingly demanding workplace environment, it’s easy to dismiss this effort as being unrealistic; as something we can put off in favour of focusing on measures that help us to achieve our short-term goals. But if you want to appreciate what this approach will give rise to, just look at the current climate of the US election and you’ll see what can happen in your organization if you choose to ignore this reality.

This is why those employee engagement levels around the world are so anemic; it’s not because we lack the skills or abilities to be effective leaders. Rather, we are simply not focusing on the right measures, the real areas that we need to be improving on if we are to not only retain the best talent, but to help them grow in order to drive our organization’s success and ability to thrive.

To quote another US President, Theodore Roosevelt “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

In the end, regardless of the final outcome of the current US election, there’s no question that the United States will need some time to heal the rifts and fractures this past election period has enabled and widened.

But if there is to be some good that might come from all of this for both Americans and non-Americans alike, it’s that we all recognize the value of empathy in leadership so that we might focus less on the things that separate us, and more on the things we share in common and want to create for the betterment of our collective society, and for the future that we all share.

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Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and keynote speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development. Tanveer’s writings and insights on leadership and workplace interactions have been featured in a number of prominent media and organization publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Canada’s national newspaper “The Globe and Mail”, The Economist Executive Education Navigator, and the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

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