empathy

Empathy is Essential to Effective Leadership

I spent 15 years in various leadership positions in the Entertainment Ticketing Industry and over those years I learned that one of my leadership super powers was the ability to anticipate reactions from staff teams and the public to various scenarios and plan in such a way as to respond to reactions before they occurred. For example, if we were going to roll out a new piece of software to our ticketing agents I would role-play in my mind the reactions of various team members and then put a plan in place to help ease anxieties, calm upset, and utilize certain team members who would grasp it easily.

This type of thinking also worked with our customers. If we needed to announce a change to an already ticketed event, I would anticipate the public’s reaction and have our agents prepared with answers to likely questions or concerns. If, for example, we learned that the headliner on a concert needed to cancel, I would make sure that my agents could list the artist or artists who would be stepping in to replace the headliner and a variety or reasons why they were a comparable substitute.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that much of this work involved empathy. In each case, it was my ability to put myself into someone else’s shoes and consider their needs and/or reactions that fueled this super power. And, being a voracious reader of nonfiction, I don’t need to rely solely upon my own experiences to support my claim. In his acclaimed leadership book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey’s fifth habit is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” In this section of his book he promotes the concept of “empathic listening,” which is to listen deeply to what another person is saying and make an effort to empathize with that person.

I found that after spending a good deal of time with my staff and practicing empathic listening with them regularly I got to know them pretty well and could anticipate their reactions to new things based upon previous experiences. Covey says, “Empathic listening is so powerful because it gives you accurate data to work with. Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives and interpretation, you’re dealing with the reality inside another person’s head and heart.”

In his book Emotional Intelligence, Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, author Daniel Goleman goes so far as to argue that empathy is the root of morality. He shares the work of empathy researcher Martin Hoffman whose research supports the idea that “it is empathizing with the potential victims – someone in pain, danger, or deprivation, say – and so sharing their distress that moves people to act to help them.” Thus, a lack of empathy would cause a leader to ignore how people might react to a set of circumstances and thus lead their team or company down the wrong path.

In Goleman’s book, we learn that Emotional Intelligence is essentially the ability to sense other people’s emotions, empathize with them, and respond appropriately. He has an entire chapter entitled “Managing with Heart” dedicated to inspiring leaders to utilize empathy and act upon it. The chapter ends with the call, “As knowledge-based services and intellectual capital become more central to corporations, improving the way people work together will be a major way to leverage intellectual capital, making a critical competitive difference. To thrive, if not survive, corporations would do well to boost their collective emotional intelligence.”

In conclusion, it is our empathy that drives our ability to be proactive leaders. And in the end, isn’t that what an effective leader really is? Someone with the ability to visualize how a variety of scenarios might work out and choose the best one. So, be an empathetic leader, and rest assured that you will be an effective one.

 

 

Image: Copyright Getty Images

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