“Truly empathic leaders can even listen to what is being said in the silence”

Recognising, empathising with and showing compassion to those experiencing pain sets some leaders apart from others. Being aware of the feelings of others and how their situation affects their perceptions, these empathic leaders are willing and able to appreciate what others are going through and potentially do something about the challenges that they face. During the early months of the corona virus pandemic, New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, together with all the senior government leaders, decided to take a 20% salary cut for six months to express solidarity with all New Zealanders that were experiencing financial pain due to job losses, salary cuts and the like. Although recognising that the salary cut would have little positive effect on the fiscus, she commented: “This is about leadership – if ever there was a time to close the gap between groups of people across New Zealand in different positions, it is now. I am responsible for the executive branch and this is where we can take action…it is about showing solidarity in New Zealand’s time of need. We need to acknowledge the hit that many New Zealanders will be taking at this moment”. A few other countries followed Ardern’s lead and also declared salary cuts for those in senior leadership positions.

A country’s or businesses’ leadership that lacks empathy towards middle/lower management and the rest of the people, will hardly ever be successful. Research (Forbes and hundreds of other studies) found that when top management lacked empathy, the lower levels exhibited less loyalty and were less interested in their work. As a result of disengaged people, high turnover of staff is experienced by companies and a high rate of citizen exodus from countries where leadership is dysfunctional is the reality. On the other hand, empathic leadership improves a sense of well-being, resulting in increased productivity, innovation and a competitive edge on the international stage.

True leadership identifies with pain and seeks solutions. Empathic leadership demonstrates care without the subtle influences of self-interest. It creates a healthy (non-toxic) environment where people can grow, prosper and reach their potential. It recognises that trust is the glue that holds nations together, so seeks to be trustworthy in every action. Accomplishing the creation of a fertile context for real growth, a leader needs to demonstrate the following empathy attributes:

  1. Express openness and transparency – integrity, elements of self-disclosure and authenticity should characterise the leader. Those in leadership must be real and genuine, expressing the same as they extend their hands to those who are in need.
  2. Practise active listening – this is not just hearing, but listening with the intent to understand. It involves posture, eye contact and open ears – a body language that expresses concern, eyes that show empathy and the ability to listen reflectively to gain understanding.
  3. Lead from without and within – lead both from the front (example) and from within teams/communities, seeking collaboration and participation from everyone and making sure that all feel heard.
  4. Encourage and then encourage some more – all people are gifted in varieties of ways and these gifts/abilities can be expressed providing the context is conducive to welcoming contribution. Encourage all to participate in realising the “big picture” vision or dream.
  5. Be fair – respect, upholding the dignity of the human being and fairness should be the leader’s bias. Marginalisation, hate and acts of violence should never be tolerated. Address such incidences firmly and swiftly.
  6. Empower others within the context of shared values – shared values provide the framework within which people can take responsibility, be proactive and act with a sense of ownership. When leaders don’t model and uphold principles embedded in a constitution, rule of law or a set of agreed-upon values, people lose hope and trust levels weaken.
  7. Be patient with yourself – no leader is perfect and we all have faults, weaknesses and less than optimal habits. Laugh at yourself (sometimes with others) and then work hard at honing your strengths. No-one really expects a leader to be perfect, bet everyone expects a leader to be trustworthy.

True leadership identifies with the pain of the people. Expressing empathy, showing genuine interest and providing an exciting picture of the future will draw people to follow and work with the leader to achieve great goals and achieve worthy ambitions.

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