What are the core leadership competencies that distinguish a great leader from a good manager? Communication, delegation and the ability to motivate others are likely to be skills that come to mind. But an often overlooked - and underestimated - quality of a truly effective leader is their ability to demonstrate empathy.
So what makes empathy an important part of exceptional leadership?
"At the core leadership is ultimately about others. It means inspiring them to take actions beyond their capabilities, leading them in a direction that is compelling and inspiring. And empathy is the foundation of those actions."
First, it’s important to understand what empathy is and what it means. Put simply, empathy means being able to understand the needs of others. Empathy requires an awareness of other people’s feelings. In the context of leadership, it means you have to consider the emotional impact of someone’s work - not just measurable indicators of their performance, like KPIs.
Demonstrating empathy is what sets great leaders apart, which requires you to respond in a way that is understanding of someone’s needs. In other words, great leaders aren’t only understanding of other people’s needs, they’re respectful of them.
There are 3 inherent qualities of empathetic leaders. While empathy can be difficult to master, the following are the foundational characteristics of an empathetic leader.
1. Good Listener
A good listener is attentive, which is not to be confused with talkative. When someone is speaking, a good listener will offer their full attention. A good listener makes eye contact and removes any distractions (like email or phone calls) to allow that person to speak uninterrupted.
The second quality of an empathetic leader is their ability to listen without casting judgment. Empathy is not about agreeing, nor is it about disagreeing. It’s merely about understanding.
3. Emotional intelligence
While being nonjudgmental is about listening unconditionally, emotional intelligence is about stepping back from emotions and seeing things how they really are. Emotional intelligence is important because it allows you to cultivate meaningful insight into someone else’s situation. It means you are able to respond from a place of sincerity.
The Importance of Empathy
There are several reasons that make empathy a core competency for truly effective leaders:
Being able to demonstrate empathy creates trust within your team. Trust creates an empowering, honest relationship with your colleagues. In turn, this will increase collaboration and productivity, but most importantly your team will be assured that their feelings are being taken care of.
Empathy also cultivates a greater presence in your leadership role. Juggling responsibilities can be difficult and distracting, so demonstrating empathy allows you to increase your attentiveness and teach you how to be patient.
If you’re able to demonstrate empathy, people will feel safe talking to you. It will allow you to listen and have a clearer picture of how to effectively manage your team.