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Empathetic Leadership

When thinking about traits of strong, effective leadership, “empathy” may not be the first word that comes to mind, in fact, it may be viewed as a weakness by many.

Early on in my career, I took the StrengthsFinder assessment after reading the book, “Now, Discover Your Strengths” by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton*. This was a somewhat transformational book in my professional growth, in that through its teachings, I learned that we might be better off by focusing our energy on developing our strengths versus always trying to work on our weaknesses. Like many leaders, I was always taught to focus on improvement through training and guidance around my weaknesses. Of course, that approach always ended in frustration, apathy, and very little performance improvement, so it was interesting to approach development differently and focus on growing my skills in the areas I am more wired to excel.

Upon receiving my scored StrengthsFinder assessment, I discovered that my top strength was empathy. At first, I was curious and, although I agreed with it, I was unsure about how that strength could be applied to my leadership. I was even more dismayed when, upon sharing this discovery with my boss, she replied, “I can help you with that.” She looked at my top strength as an actual weakness in the arena of leadership. After a period of self-reflection however, I ended up taking the approach of learning more about empathy and how it could be leveraged to improve how I taught, trained, coached, and led my team. I found that this strength gave me enormous power to connect with others and see how they see the world, their roles, and the organization.

But how do you leverage empathy if it is not your natural strength? Our books, Gapology, IMBAR, and Speed of Purpose provide strategic approaches to tap into empathy and make it work for you. Below are some things that you can do.

  • Set your identity and mindset as a “Leader” versus a “Manager”. Leaders look at the team first, while managers look at the tasks first. This is a critical first step as will help you effectively tackle the second step.

  • Define a clear and compelling purpose and connect your efforts to it. Look at the needs of your team members through that lens first and then wrap your purpose into your strategy for closing any Knowledge Gaps, Importance Gaps, and Action Gaps that you identify.

  • Look at providing training and teaching to help your team grow professionally and personally, versus only improving your profits. Of course, improved individual performance will improve organizational performance, however, connecting with the needs and desires of the team members will provide you with an enhanced ability to empathize with them as well.

  • Shift your mindset when developing your expectations and priorities. Before rolling them out, stop and consider how they will impact the team. This approach isn’t designed to change those things, but rather to think through how you should deliver them. Approaching expectations and priorities with this type of focus will help you connect with the team to present things in the best ways so they will hear, understand, and eventually agree to them.

  • Build empathy into your leadership rhythm. Establishing empathy as a key driver of your leadership may not come naturally to you, but you can develop it and layer it into your daily and weekly routine. Make it part of your process. Put time on your calendar, even 15 minutes, for reflecting on the team. You may have to be very intentional about it, but you absolutely can tap into it.

Be aware that many things can negatively impact empathy. Fatigue, stress and regularly focusing inwards on social media can create dramatic obstacles to overcome that could potentially limit your ability to connect with others.

As leaders, we need to remember that empathy is a strength, not a weakness. It is a critical piece of your leadership toolbox that can help you to connect deeply with your team, and it is one that when utilized, can be leveraged to help them succeed.

Listen to our podcast conversation on this topic here:

*Clifton, D. O. (2020). Now, discover your strengths: The revolutionary Gallup program that shows you how to develop your unique talents and strengths. Gallup Press.


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