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The Impact of the Empathetic Leader

Leaders come in all shapes and sizes. So much research has explored different styles and approaches to leadership and what makes for a ‘good’ leader. If we replace ‘good’ with ‘effective’ then measuring how effective someone is as a leader has to be based on some expected outcome of leadership. One outcome of effective leadership is that it should motivate, encourage, and inspire those who look to them for direction and guidance.

What makes an effective leader?

Many traits or characteristics have been ascribed to effective leaders. One that is perhaps less often discussed is that of empathy. What is empathy and what impact can it have on those working with such a leader?

People who are empathetic are those who can understand and share in the feelings that others are experiencing. Brené Brown identifies four key characteristics of empathy: being able to take the perspective of another; not judging; recognising the emotions that another is experiencing; being able to communicate that connection.

Sympathetic vs. Empathetic

This is empathy, as opposed to sympathy, which is often about trying to help and put things right or ‘sugarcoat’ the situation as Brown says. Take a look at this great video by Brené Brown that explains the difference between the two.

What makes an empathetic leader?

So being an empathetic leader in the workplace is about having a strong awareness of the thoughts, feelings, and needs of others in our teams. It is also about putting aside our own views and judgements and working to understand how others are experiencing the same situation. How is it for them? How often as leaders are we trying to put things right rather than recognising the experiences of our colleagues and connecting with them?

Connecting with your team

By being able to connect and communicate well with others we are likely to be able to work together to resolve challenges and collaborate to find solutions. They are willing to connect by revealing their own feelings and responses, to the extent sometimes of appearing vulnerable.

Using active listening

Empathetic leaders apply active listening where they are taking in information not just by what is said but also through a recognition of the emotions that are being displayed such as via the use of verbal language, tone of voice, or body language. Empathetic leaders are able to ‘read the room’ and quickly pick up on the mood and feelings either at the individual and/or team level.

Displaying emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence lies at the heart of an empathetic leader. They are able to respond with sensitivity and understanding and offer support and guidance as appropriate to the context.

What impact does an empathetic leader have?

This description of leadership can feel very different from the authoritative command-and-control style of leadership where compassion and sensitivity may be less to the fore. Empathetic leaders still get things done but it is achieved in a very different way.

The impact of an empathetic leader is good connection, effective communication, and strong collaboration as people are brought together at an emotional level. It can lead to the development of a very specific culture where people can do more than perform well but also thrive and feel recognised for their contribution.

What do you think makes an empathetic leader and what impact can they have? Are you perhaps one yourself or would like to work on your leadership style and become an empathetic leader? Get in touch at to find out how coaching can help your leadership.


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