Empathy in Leadership

I have often wondered what it is about a leader that stands out for me personally, regardless of the role. Leaders are found everywhere — community leaders, project team leaders, PTA leaders, volunteer leaders, organization leaders, and family leaders. Leadership seems to require a varied mix of attributes, depending on the organization, community, and even family. Considering this mix of attributes, the one that time and time again seems to outweigh the others, when considering overall long-term success, is the attribute of empathy.

While emotional intelligence is an attribute with the closest proximity to empathy, it just doesn’t reach the depth of success that a leader can obtain when it is paired closely with empathy, in my opinion. Emotional intelligence is more of a surface attribute that one can acquire. True empathy takes more time and constant vigilance to remind oneself that others’ circumstances, feelings, and needs must be incorporated into effectively leading others.

Sean MacEntee for Flickr
Sean MacEntee for Flickr

I am very fortunate to have worked for a truly empathetic leader during my career. The difference in leadership was profound, as measured throughout the organization and even my own community. When I questioned, as a human resources professional, what made this one leader stand out to the point where employees were naming his reign as “Camelot,” the attribute that stood out the most was empathy. The employees weren’t calling his time as a leader “Camelot” due to his business savvy alone. Nor were they heralding his praises due to his presentation skills or strategy. He cared about his employee community, and the employees cared about him. His success was ours, and our success helped him. He was the leader of our division. He cared about us. He took the time to get to know us through new hire introductions, brown bag lunches, town hall meetings, and hallway conversations. He delivered a team bonus plan targeted for the salaried and the hourly workforce at a time when this was unheard of in the organization. I often heard that when he visited a plant location, he could be found chatting with the hourly employees.

Unfortunately, he retired. But the wealth of experience that I personally gained under his leadership continues. I strongly believe that each of us is a leader in some aspect of our lives, whether it is in the community, at work, or in our family unit. The ability to display empathy, given the right circumstances, can have a profound degree of success. I have watched volunteer organizations fail due to a lack of empathy for those whom they should be trying to help. I have watched coaches inspire players and offer empathy to team members that resulted in outstanding performance. So, it is not just the ability to lead with empathy that is important. The environment must be willing to allow for the trait to reach its full potential. This requires us to help shape that environment, allowing empathy to flow through the organization and place in leadership positions those who can empathize with others.

The opportunities to display empathy in our community are unlimited. I often remind myself of the value of empathy. So many occasions exist for each of us to take the time to empathize with others daily. Empathy is as important as taking your driver’s license with you when you drive. Don’t leave home without bringing empathy with you for interactions with others, whether in your own community, with your family, or at work.

Jeanne Damon is pursuing her master’s degree in Human Resources and Employment Relations at Penn State World Campus. She currently holds the SPHR, PHR and SHRM-SCP certifications along with a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Management from Bloomsburg University and is a Dean’s List recipient.