Leadership Qualities: Empathy.

Noah Couser’s 8th grade students from Kalispell Middle School sharing how a little empathy could help to change the world.

When someone says, “I’m hurting.”  An empathetic leader can change their world by responding, “I understand.  Let’s work it out together.”  The result is improved “connectedness” and an even greater sense of belonging where personal and organizational goals can be accomplished.

With it being April 15, final papers, examinations, and graduations are just around the corner.  So, imagine a young student in the middle of this maze wondering what they are going to do about the required class that they missed all semester due to illness.  With great trepidation they approach the professor on the day that final assignments are due, and explain the situation.  They also express the need to have the class completed within the academic year due to family and financial constraints.  The professor listens carefully while offering tissues to dry the tears that escape.  Rather than dismissing the student altogether for not having taken prior action, the professor asks them to wait while she leaves to consult with a senior faculty member.  A solution is arrived at given the student’s academic history.  The senior faculty member offers to supervise a summer research project and submit final grades for the student.  Upon hearing the news, the student’s relief was unmistakable and the appreciation expressed was priceless.

In a world that moves at breakneck speed for students and workers being pulled in a million different directions, empathetic leaders make a world of difference in allowing them to feel connected to the right place.  Empathy is the capacity for and “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy).   

According to psychiatrist and business and finance consultant, Prudy Gourguechon (2017), there is no tougher skill than empathy because it is essential for competent leadership in the U.S. Army Field Manual on Leader Development.  She emphasizes that

“Empathy enables you to know if the people you’re trying to reach are actually reached.  It allows you to predict the effect your decisions and actions will have on core audiences and strategize accordingly.  Without empathy, you can’t build a team or nurture a new generation of leaders.  You will not inspire followers or elicit loyalty” (https://www.forbes.com/sites/prudygourguechon/2017/12/26/empathy-is-an-essential-leadership-skill-and-theres-nothing-soft-about-it/#12fb2e3d2b9d).  

And, she is right.  Because the world is beginning to discover who Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana is because of his immense capacity for empathy.  As he delivered another spellbinding speech yesterday (April 14, 2019) to officially announce his candidacy for the US Presidency, he shared stories of how government policies had benefited him, his spouse, and his parents who faced major medical conditions.  With every word that he spoke, audience members could relate for having experienced the distress that comes from family crises.  But, he also imagined a new future of rebuilding cities with new jobs and clean energy solutions, so that people could see themselves in it.

Photos courtesy of Unsplash.

Want some proof?  Consider these results from studies on empathy:

  1. less than 50 percent of employees in a recent Businessolver survey reported feeling that their companies were empathetic (Miller, 2018; https://www.inc.com/jeff-miller/studies-show-empathy-is-an-essential-quality-for-leaders-heres-how-to-master-it.html)
  2. there are two routes to leaderships: (1) mental abilities and his/her ability to perform complex tasks; and, (2) displays of emotional abilities, such as empathy (Kellett, Humphrey & Sleeth, 2002; https://doi.org/10.1016/S1048-9843(02)00142-X)
  3. empathy is one of the three core components of charismatic leadership (Choi, 2006; https://doi.org/10.1177/10717919070130010501)
  4. complex relationships exist among four different aspects of leadership (i.e. a skill, values, behaviors, and exchange relationship); supporting the need for leader empathy and ethical leadership to be included in leadership selection and development programs (Mahsud, Yukl & Prussia, 2010; https://doi.org/10.1108/02683941011056932)
  5. findings from a three year study conducted among business students show empathy consistently ranking lowest among leadership skills; follow-up study explored why this low ranking; of note is the relationship to the effects of corporate psychopaths on ethical performance that is included; conclusion is that corporations and business schools need a paradigm shift in how they think about leaders’ required skills (Holt & Marques, 2012; https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-011-0951-5).

Empathy is invaluable because you truly show that you have learned to walk a mile in that person’s  shoes.


Oprah Winfrey’s inspiring speech to Harvard graduates in 2013 almost didn’t happen because she was scared she had nothing new to teach them. She reflects on this moment in her new book, “The Path Made Clear: Discovering Your Life’s Direction and Purpose.”

So, for someone who has been successful in many ventures but still faces fear from the struggles of a new and bigger endeavour, Oprah Winfrey’s confession of her struggles with her OWN Network while preparing to speak at Harvard’s commencement in 2013 was breathtaking.  It served as a reminder to all that life is a never-ending journey to the dreams that keep calling you forward after you have accomplished another.

So, the next time you encounter a team member in distress, exercise a little empathy.  According to leadership expert, Simon Sinek, it is the most important instrument in a leader’s toolbox, which is simply expressed, “Is everything OK?”  He suggests that those working relationships that have gone a little sour can be renewed with a little confrontation, like, “When we started we were both so excited, and it’s become really difficult now. Are you OK? What’s changed?” (Levitt, 2017).

For Jamaicans who have been raised with the adage, “Manners carry you through this world,” we understand that the simple act of acknowledging people builds bridges.  Such a daily habit over a long time adds up to a lifetime investment with compounding interest in strong relationships.  So be it a ravaging tornado, a death of a beloved, a troubled child, or something else, empathetic leaders can steer their people and their organizations to success.  

Visiting the family of someone who is ill or who has recently suffered a disaster is one way of learning empathy.  Learn more in For a Teacher’s Heart and other works at  http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/KeishaAMitchellPhD  and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zfPWaPCJ0vE  .

Photo courtesy of Tim Marshall on Unsplash.

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