May 20, 2020

Empathy: The True Leadership Superpower?


For as long as I can remember, those in positions of power who have emphasised the importance of authenticity and empathy, have been lauded the world over for practicing what they preach

Yet it seems that in these times, one of the most important traits we are asking our leaders to demonstrate is their ability to look after others. And guess what? Leaders who actually care about others and are able to empathise with them, find it a lot easier to be authentic about being caring. I am willing to make a bold bet without speaking to any political leader or FTSE250 CEO that none of them are 100% confident of what is coming next or what to do about it. Yet, they have thousands, if not millions of people looking up to them for guidance because their decisions affect their lives. Every leader is under a microscope and they are constantly questioned.

Yet, what seems to me to be interesting is that for years, caring has been an incredibly neglected criterion when we come to define and select leaders. This is not to say that no leaders care, but when selecting them, their caring nature is something few people consider. If anything, their caring nature may lead people to think of them as soft.

Effectively, what we have done is become so fixated on finding a captain who seems to have a good inclination of where to steer the ship and is good at steering himself, that we forget to look at whether they have let the entire crew go overboard in the process. And I use  ‘himself’ deliberately because there are more men called Peter, David or Mark on Glassdoor’s top CEO list than there are women. 

In my early days in recruitment, a senior Sales Director I was interviewing, openly admitted to me he was not the best sales person on his team. I thought it was a strange but interesting thing to say, so I probed him further. His answer has completely changed the way I have viewed leadership since.

He said “The best sales leader is not the best sales person, the best salesperson needs to focus on just that, selling. The best sales leader is the one who is best at bringing the best sales person out in others.” Doing this successfully inevitably requires the person to care about growing other people and being more invested in upskilling them than they are in profiling themselves. We also value intelligence and good instinct in leaders. We understandably feel quite strongly that leaders need to be able to understand the bigger picture, the role of the company within it and how to get there. 

Whilst this is undeniably a necessary trait of leadership, it is by no means sufficient. Because, going back to our valiant captain, they managed to get the ship to the idyllic island, but lost their entire crew in the process. So, it is not just about knowing where you need to go, it is about knowing how to get people to be excited to come on the journey with you and the only way to do that is to genuinely be able to empathise with people.

This is a tall order. With teams becoming more and more diverse, you need to be able to find something that wins over hearts and minds. This requires spending a tremendous amount of time listening to people and quite frankly, if a leader does not genuinely care, the task becomes mundane and routine. Even worse, they may end up missing those subtleties that cannot be put in words but are easy to spot if leaders genuinely take the time to listen.

Within every crisis, the only way to find a semblance of hope is to see opportunity. And the greatest opportunity I see here is for this experience to serve as a call to a new leadership with empathy, kindness and compassion at its heart.