St. John the Evangelist and St. Francis, El Greco, c. 1608, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
Ideas for Leaders #041

Being an Empathic Leader

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Key Concept

An unexpected ‘skill’ that may be the key to more effective management and leadership is empathy. Empathic managers are viewed as better performers in their jobs, especially in certain cultures. As it is not a fixed trait, it can (and should) be learnt and taught by leaders everywhere, as empathic leaders are important assets for their organizations.

Idea Summary

We know that companies need to start moving away from traditional strategies for management development, and consider the skills required to improve chances of success. Leading executive education specialists have suggested that the most important of these skills is empathy.

Most leadership theories suggest the ability to have and display empathy is an important part of leadership; moreover, empathy is also a key part of emotional intelligence that several researchers believe is critical to being an effective leader. Today’s leaders need to be more person-focused and be able to work with those not just in the next cubicle, but also with those in other buildings, or other countries.
Thus, to better understand how leaders can be more effective in their jobs, a study has been conducted in which subordinates rated their leaders on display of empathetic emotion. The study considered the following questions:

  1. Successful job performance: Is empathy needed to be successful in a leader’s job?
  2. Cross-cultural issues: Does empathy influence success more in some cultures than others?

The study found that empathy is positively related to job performance, and managers who show more empathy are viewed as better performers in their job.

The study also found the positive relationship between empathic emotion and performance to be greater for managers living in high power-distance countries, making empathy even more critical to performance for managers operating in those cultures. Examples of high power-distance countries include China, Egypt, Hong Kong, Malaysia, New Zealand, Poland, Singapore, and Taiwan.

Business Application

Leaders must develop the capability to demonstrate empathy to improve their performance and effectiveness. So how can we learn to be more empathic?

  • Talk about empathy: Explain that giving time and attention to others fosters empathy, which in turn, enhances your performance and improves your perceived effectiveness.
  • Teach listening skills: when a manager is a good listener, people feel respected and trust can grow. Aim to listen to hear the meaning behind what others are saying and be an active listener.
  • Encourage genuine perspective-taking: for managers, this includes taking into account the personal experience or perspective of their employees.
  • Cultivate compassion: go beyond the standard-issue values statement and allow time for compassionate reflection and response.
  • Support global managers: working across cultures requires managers to understand people who have very different perspectives and experiences.

In conclusion, the ability to understand what others are feeling is a skill that clearly contributes to effective leadership; empathetic leaders are assets to organizations because they are able to effectively build and maintain relationships - a critical part of leading organizations anywhere in the world.

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Idea conceived

  • 2010

Idea posted

  • January 2013

DOI number



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