Great leaders are empathetic — what you can do to change

empathyuThere was a really great article in the Harvard Business Review titled, “Empathy is still lacking in the leaders who need it most.” The article is about the importance of empathy in leaders and the much too frequent absence of empathy in most middle managers and executives. The author, Ernest J. Wilson III and his team from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, identified five “soft skills” that leaders defined for success. These important soft skills are:

  1. – Adaptability
  2. – Cultural competence (the capacity to think, act, and move across multiple borders)
  3. – 360 degree thinking (holistic understanding, capable of recognizing patterns of problems and the solutions)
  4. – Intellectual curiosity
  5. – Empathy
First, the researchers are to be applauded for identifying some of the intangibles that make a leader successful. It’s so rare and exciting to see academics depart from the conventional wisdoms and do work with real value. Second, the inclusion of empathy on the list is an important move forward. Being able to be “present” with people and empathize with them is the difference between connecting with people and being dogmatic. We have discovered that the foundation of empathy is self-trust. Self-trust derives from self-awareness, which comes from personal reflection. We have begun to call this the “circle of trust.” The Circle of Trust starts with the confidence to give up your own position in order to be in someone else’s space. While it is unfortunate that so few executives show empathy or the other four soft skills, all is not lost. Fortunately, these five capabilities, including empathy, can be learned. Our Cerebyte Experience programs directly develop the first four skills and at the end of our five month program everyone can do all of these skills. In addition, our programs help leaders develop the confidence leaders need to be completely open to and empathetic with others. These leaders then exercise and expand their use of empathy through work with team members and in building networks. The ability to empathize can be learned. However, I have to hedge my enthusiasm for this post because there is a significant flaw in this work. I would suggest that the research team missed the importance of purpose to great leadership. I suspect that they didn’t actually ask the leaders they interviewed about what motivated them, instead the researchers focused on “skills” so I am not surprised by the omission. The omission is critical though because each of these five capabilities is essentially meaningless without the focus provided by purpose. Purpose provides motivation and focus that gives these capabilities meaning. Being committed to a compelling purpose and working diligently to master what’s needed in order to achieve a given purpose, will supply leaders with all of these skills and most critically, the confidence to be empathetic. Are you an empathetic leader? Do you have a compelling purpose?]]>

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