6 Reasons Empathy Will Make You A Powerful Leader


Two businessmen discussing.

Empathy used to sound to me like a weak word associated with touchy-feely concepts.  But in recent years, I have come to understand that it is actually an incredibly powerful concept.

If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from his angle as well as your own.  – Henry Ford

Empathy does not mean compassion, which is an emotional connection with someone that responds to the situation with action.  Empathy also differs from sympathy, which is when you have feelings for that person, but you don’t fully understand the other person’s feelings. For instance, you may feel a sense of regret or compassion about someone else’s hardship, but you’re not placing yourself in that person’s shoes.

Rather, as Webster’s defines it, empathy is “understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”  It is the ability to place yourself inside another’s experience and understand things through that person’s perspective.

6 Reasons Empathetic Thinking Is Powerful for Leaders

  1. It puts you into “Seek First to Understand” mode, so you can better understand your audience, so you can make decisions that better impact them, and so you know better how to communicate with them
  2. Most people never listen, so people will notice the difference if you do. Ernest Hemingway said it well. “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” How often do you really feel listened to?  When it happens, doesn’t the attentive listener capture your attention and your loyalty?  When you become an active listener and really engage in what others are saying, it will make a big impression on them.
  3. It allows people to connect emotionally, so they can actually listen to your logic. “We are not thinking machines,” George Washington University neurology professor Richard Restak argues. “We are feeling machines who think.” If people feel unheard or not understood, they can’t disengage with their feelings enough to embrace your logic. You have to meet their feelings with emotion. Once that emotional connection is made, and they feel their feelings have been validated, you can then move the audience to a conclusion with logic. Consider the official acknowledgements in the aftermath of a tragic incident that must be handled and moved forward in some way.  Public officials begin by saying, “Our hearts go out to the family of those killed in the fire.”  They must acknowledge and validate the feelings that people are experiencing before any logical conclusions or plans can move forward.
  4. Empathy kicks you out of self-absorption. Most of us naturally are inclined to be absorbed with our own experiences and feelings.  Relating with empathy involves recognizing and treating others as equals, and to validate that they are people, too, fully experiencing events in their own way.
  5. Your empathetic thinking makes your audience more receptive to being influenced by you. Mirror neurons cause your audience to have the same brain activity based on your actions, thoughts, and feelings. As a leader, when you are truly seeking to fully understand your audience — and are willing to be influenced by their point of view — they are more likely to seek to understand you and be open to your influence.
  6. Empathy moves you toward mutuality. Research psychologist David Burnham says that mutuality leads to actions that demonstrate emotional intelligence, which leads to higher levels of employee engagement and morale.

Mutuality means fully recognizing others as valuable and whole persons, and participating with them in mutual activities.  Emotional intelligence (also known as “EQ,” in contract to “IQ”) is the ability to recognize, identify, and empathize with your emotions and those of others; it includes self-knowledge and self-awareness, as well as interpersonal awareness and abilities. Emotional intelligence has been shown to increase employee engagement, which is the degree to which the people you lead care about their work and their organization.

“Empathetic people are superb at recognizing and meeting the needs of clients, customers, or subordinates,” wrote Daniel Goleman in Primal Leadership. “They seem approachable, wanting to hear what people have to say. They listen carefully, picking up on what people are truly concerned about, and respond on the mark.”

Doesn’t that sound like a leader worth following? To become that kind of leader yourself, practice empathetic thinking.

Some people think only intellect counts: knowing how to solve problems, knowing how to get by, knowing how to identify an advantage and seize it. But the functions of intellect are insufficient without courage, love, friendship, compassion, and empathy. – Dean Koontz


Podcast episode 004: Powerful Empathy

Video: How to Use Mirror Neurons to Influence People

Book: Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ by Daniel Goleman

The Power of Communication: Skills to Build Trust, Inspire Loyalty, and Lead Effectively by Helio Fred Garcia

Burnham Rosen offers a three-day workshop to leverage this information to become a superior leader. I completed this workshop in November 2010 and highly recommend it.

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