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Why leadership means empathy for others

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Leaders who lack empathy cannot truly call themselves leaders.

The very act of leadership requires you to have the ability to feel and understand where others are coming from. It is the ability to mindful of others feelings, be conscious of peoples’ walk of life and most importantly be able to feel what others are going through.

Leadership is built on emotions, and to ignore or disregard the very essence of what makes one a human is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to effective leadership.

Empathy is defined as the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions, or experience of others. Empathy is more than simple sympathy, which is being able to understand and support others with compassion or sensitivity. Displaying empathy is a crucial part of leadership.

There are numerous studies that link empathy to harnessing effective relationships, business results, winning political elections, philanthropy and donor relations and more. There are studies that correlate empathy with increased sales, with the performance of the best managers of product development teams and with enhanced performance in an increasingly diverse workforce.

In popular Harvard Business Review article entitled “What Makes a Leader?”, Dr. Daniel Goleman isolates three reasons why empathy is so important: The increasing use of teams, (which he refers to as “cauldrons of bubbling emotions”); the rapid pace of globalization (with cross cultural communication easily leading to misunderstandings); and the growing need to retain talent. “Leaders with empathy,” states Goleman, “do more than sympathize with people around them; they use their knowledge to improve their companies in subtle, but important ways.”

So, if having empathy is such an important component of leadership, why do so many people lack it? If one is not careful, leadership can turn into self-centeredness. If you forget the purpose of being a leader, which is to serve, then you are hindering your opportunity to develop empathetic leadership skills. You cannot serve without understanding the needs, concerns and desires of those whom you serve and the only way to do that is to have empathy. We have more sociopathic leadership now than ever which is another topic I will delve into soon.

Here are some tips to help you build and display empathy to those you lead:

1. Practice on active listening. Truly listen to people around you. Listen with the intent to hear and not to reply.

2. Pay attention to non-verbal cues. Most communicative processes are done non-verbally. People say more with the body language and tone of voice than they do with words.

3. Empathy requires that you care. You cannot lead effectively if you do not care about the wellbeing of others. Validate people’s feelings that showing and stating that you care.

4. You should have a natural emotional reaction to the suffering of others…if you do not, then something is blocking your ability to feel, which will ultimately affect how you relate to others.

5. Take personal interest in people’s lives and stories. Your ability to recognize others will help you in developing strong connections and relationships.

6. Don’t be too beholden to your viewpoints. Empathy requires you to walk in the shoes of others who are different from you. Be open to people’s various perspectives in life while still keeping it in your back pocket.

The opposite of empathy is apathy. Apathy is lack of interest, a state of indifference, lack of concern, or enthusiasm. Apathetic leaders show up in body, but are inattentive or unaware about what is going on with their team, function, or even the organization. There is a high level of apathetic managers, political leaders and bosses. If you are in a leadership role please take the time necessary to evaluate if you are struggling with apathy on the job and in your personal life.

Yetunde A. Odugbesan-Omede, Ph.D., M.Sc., is a global leadership expert, policy advisor and professor. She is the CEO of Yetunde Global Consulting, a leading leadership and organizational management firm that specializes in leadership development and training, human capital management and global business strategies. She is also a Professor of Global Affairs and Political Science. Learn more about her company at www.yetundeglobalconsulting.com


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