The Empathetic Leader

(published 02 February 2015, MST)

Corporate and academic research point to the emergence of a leadership trait—intangible and often overlooked —responsible for the success of an organization.
That trait is empathy, and all others associated with it: humility,compassion, sensitivity.
The concept of empathy in leadership leaders contradicts the more common notion of the alpha-male leader. According to Douglas LaBier, Ph.D in his article “Why humble, empathic business leaders are more successful” that appeared in The Huffington Post, the time of “the dominant, typically male leader who knows everything, who gives direction to everybody and sets the pace whom everybody follows because this person is so smart and intelligent and clever” is over.
“We need a new kind of leader who focuses much more on relationships and understands that leadership is not about himself, who knows he needs to listen to other people, to be intellectually curious and emotionally open...he needs empathy to do the job,” LaBier continues.
Self-insight is also key. LaBier cites a study conducted among 1,500 participants at Norwegian Business School. What emerged was that leaders with a good self-insight, who are humble and act as credible role models, are rewarded with committed and service-minded employees.
Researchers asked the leaders to assess their leadership style, and the employees to assess their superiors’ style. Positive results start showing when the leader is humble; i.e., has a lower opinion of his leadership than his employees do.
Furthermore, “leaders with a strong self-insight demonstrate a good understanding of their own needs, emotions, abilities and behavior,” according to the study as described in the Web site Science Nordic.
Jayson Boyers, in an article called “Why empathy is the force that moves business forward” for Forbes Magazine, suggests understanding empathy as “each person’s connection to the people and marketplace that surround them. A biological principle known as co-evolution explains that the adaptation of an organism is triggered by thee change of a related success depends on empathetic leaders who are able to adapt, build on the strengths around them, and relate to their environment.”
It also requires effort. True enough, Boyers always asks people: “How can you walk in someone else’s shoes if you never get out of your chair?...Once people are able to step out of their offices and mindsets and experience vulnerability, they truly begin to feel what those around them are feeling.”
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What is true for business may as well be true in the context of government as well. Leaders are leaders, wherever you may put them. It follows thus that the most successful leaders may well be those who establish connections with the people they govern.
Be careful, though, because there are traps. Foremost, empathy may be faked by the most cunning and calculated politicians. It may earn them votes, loyalty that will last across generations, and even provide a convenient cover for corrupt acts.  Empathy may also be mistaken for “softness”—a lack of firmness and authority.
Still, genuine empathy will eventually show itself distinct from pretensions to such, especially when the governed are discerning and wise. At its best, it can break down barriers and open doors for better communication. A truly empathetic leader will thus not shun those whose opinions vary from his or her own. In fact, these views, so long as they are valid, sound and fair, will be welcome and will form part of the truly democratic process of consultation and consensus.
Empathy will also enable government leaders to constantly evaluate themselves. It’s  good to be confident about the way you’re running things, but not smug and arrogant. There is always something to improve on, always something new to learn. Being imperfect is not a crime. One always has to be humble enough to accept it.
In simple terms, empathy is the ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes. This sounds simple but could actually be difficult, if not impossible, for others with a different predisposition and upbringing. What then does an organization do with a leader incapable of empathy? Nothing, really, but to keep pushing boundaries in the hopes that he or she would listen, and understand he or she is not personally under attack or persecuted.
That, and being more discerning during the next selection process.