Empathetic leadership: it’s more than a feeling—it’s about action

You’re grinding it out on a big project when—BOOM—life happens. You fall into a hole, and nearing deadlines turn into growing anxieties. As the hole deepens, the sides increase in steepness—you are trapped.

Someone walks by—you look up and scream, “I’m in a hole!” They look down, saying, “Wow, you might want to pick up the pace if you want to deliver on time.”

Another person approaches, they kneel at the edge of the hole, you explain your predicament. They stand up and remark, “I’m so sorry—that sucks,” and they walk away.

Your project lead then walks by. You cry out, “Hey, it’s me, can you help me out?” You expect a lifeline, but instead they leap down into the hole with you. You say, “What’s wrong with you? Now we’re both stuck down here.”

The project lead puts their hand on your shoulder and says, “I've been down here before, I know the way out.”

My journey from apathetic to empathetic

That tale may seem like a reductive adaptation of apathetic, sympathetic, and empathic leadership. However, in my journey as CEO and President of my own company, I have often found myself stuck leading from a place of apathy and sympathy. I have told struggling employees to, “just do your damn jobs,” and, “I’m sorry to hear that—that sucks,” and walked away.

It was only when I led with empathy, and ultimately compassion, that I started making positive impacts on the lives of my employees, and achieving business and project objectives. So, what—or rather who—is a modern empathetic leader? And why is empathy and love more important than ever in our rapidly evolving world?

Apathy: leading without emotion

It was a few years ago, but at one point my company was failing. The market had turned sour, clients were dropping like flies, and I was a little unhinged. I was stressed, worried, and lost—but I had to keep the business moving, I had to keep my people focused. I was their leader.

So, when people came to me with conflicts on projects, or personal problems that slowed productivity, I was extremely objective. I erected barriers to avoid emotional conversations, and would only focus on the work. I would say things like, “That’s awful, but can you still deliver this today,” or, “I don’t care how they made you feel, it’s an important project.”

I was leading from a place of apathy. I thought objectivity and shying away from emotion would garner results, so I became emotionally removed from the situation. I was out of touch. My employees were running out of gas—and my projected cash runway was looking shorter and shorter.

Sympathy: leading with emotion

As the economy slowly rebounded, it gave our business some breathing room—with that found space we had some very difficult and honest conversations. I listened and learned about how my toxic leadership was harming my employees, and in turn the business. If my business was to survive, if I were to retain my talented team, I needed to change.

Through introspection I strived to be empathetic—to listen more, to be more understanding, and to encourage others to be more open. At first it seemed like it was working. When conflict occurred, people communicated more freely, I actually listened, and my teams seemed closer. However, over time, I realized I wasn’t actually resolving anything—I thought I was practicing empathy, but in reality I was practicing sympathy. I had fallen into a sympathy trap. I created a Venting Culture. I encouraged people to be honest, and I listened—but I made no effort to find resolution, or take action. I was acknowledging problems, but not solving them.

Empathy: my mountain-top moment

I wanted to love my employees, to raise them up—but I also needed the business to achieve its goals and grow. That wasn’t going to happen simply by acknowledging problems. I realized I needed to be a part of the solution. That was my mountain-top moment, my empathy-epiphany: through practicing empathy, I could do more than just make my employees feel better in the moment, I could help get them to a better place.

I returned to the valley, practicing empathy—I no longer felt bad for people, I felt with them. “I’ve been down here before, I know the way out”—and if I didn’t know, we worked together to find the way out. It was through empathy that I started gaining traction in the market, and not just retaining talent, but attracting new talent.

Connections lead to outcomes

Leading from a place of apathy helps no one—you are emotionally removed, you are out of touch. Sympathetic leadership—while well-intentioned—brings you close, but not close enough to influence genuine, lasting change. Empathy begins with “feeling with someone”—you become close, you jump into the hole with them, you form a connection. You find your way out, together.

University of Houston research professor, Dr. Brené Brown (Go Coogs!), said it best, “[R]arely can a response make something better. What makes something better is a connection.” Empathy fosters compassion, and compassion empowers leaders to take action and create meaningful outcomes for both individuals and the business.

Connecting while socially-distanced

As my company was acclimating to the new virtual world, one of my employees suddenly went from 9-5 director, to 9-5 director and daytime child care provider. My director’s partner is a frontline healthcare worker, so while their hospital work schedule suddenly became prioritized, he took up the wild responsibility of raising two small children while working full-time from home.

It was a strain and a huge adjustment, scheduling meetings around meals, finding work blocks during nap times, and feeling endlessly apologetic for the kids’ “disruptive behavior.” Project managers sympathized with this, and to help balance his work and life, started dialing back his workload and involvement. Though this was well-intentioned, it created distance and impeded business outcomes.

As a business owner, I needed to understand what was going on. As a father and leader I empathized, and jumped into the hole with him. He was vulnerable, he explained his conundrum, the feeling of remoteness, and his willingness to find a way to make it work.

Through empathy we formed a connection, and that connection grew into compassion: I needed to find a way to relieve his suffering. Helping my director out of the hole meant getting in there with him. We set up weekly evening calls to create a space to talk, strategize, and keep him in the fold. It took extra effort on my part, but he felt better about his work-life balance, and I was happier with the business outcomes.

In this era of social distancing and remote work, making a connection is challenging. The distance between leaders and teams has been magnified, visibility strained, and bandwidth stretched. There is no owner’s manual for leading a company during a pandemic—so we make mistakes, we learn from them, and we try again with a renewed, empathetic perspective.

Love and empathy as a business strategy

Empathy is a choice. Being empathetic requires effort, vulnerability, conviction, listening, failing, learning, and failing some more. But making the choice to be an empathetic leader should be an easy one. With love and empathy YOU can effect real change in your organization, and even shake up the industry landscape. Empathy is more than a feeling—it’s a driving force that results in meaningful outcomes for:

Your business & customers

Businesses that practice empathy are more in tune with the needs of their customers and the realities of their worlds. They are quicker to innovate and deliver solutions with greater impact and authenticity. That same empathy also creates brand loyalty—when a customer feels loved by your brand, they love you back.

Your employees

Teams built on a foundation of empathy are high performing—they are open to new ideas, brave during tough conversations, and they trust each other. They are also more resilient—when the you-know-what hits the fan, they band together, share their perspectives, and look for a way out, together.

You (the leader)

Empathetic leadership is not just about capital ‘L’ leadership. The truth is, anyone can be an empathetic leader. Employees with this mindset support each other, they operate with greater autonomy, and rely less on leadership to make day-to-day decisions. Empathy begets empathy: when you empathize with your teams, they in turn empathize with you.

With empathy and love as a business strategy, employees aren’t just happier. They are more trusting of one another, more resilient—and ultimately more productive. But, as leaders we often fall into the trap of believing we are practicing empathy—when in reality, we are being sympathetic and problem-focused. Empathetic leadership is more than a feeling, it’s about closeness, compassion—and being collectively solution-focused. It’s about action.

Empathy is a choice. How will you respond?