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Leadership Mini-Series - Empathy

Leadership Mini-Series - 


Each letter will describe one of the four key attributes that propel great leaders. Embedded in each letter will be a question to self-test against said attribute.

These aren't in any particular order, and you will need different quantities in your morning coffee at different times.



I found this piece particularly difficult to write. (1) I did not want to sound like an asshole, (2) I did not want to come off as sounding fluffy. Writing about empathy is hard.

Why? Because as much as you hear about empathic leadership being the new-new we all need, the truth of its benefits are never really articulated.

Let's dig in.

Dr Christina Boedker, the leader of an extensive study of 77 firms, concluded that "the ability of a leader to be empathetic and compassionate has the greatest impact on organisational profitability and productivity."

When you execute, your sole job is to find excellence. To hone your skill, get faster, get better, and solve the problem.

When you lead, your job is to get the most out of others.

Your talent as a leader can be defined by how you make others feel.


It's important to remember the difference between sympathy, compassion and empathy, as they are often confused.

- Sympathy is typically defined by feelings of pity for another person without really understanding what it's like to be in their situation.

- Compassion is the awareness of others' suffering and the desire to help them be happy and well.

Empathy, on the other hand, refers to the capacity or ability to imagine oneself in the situation of another, experiencing the emotions, ideas, or opinions of that person.

Empathetic leadership means; having the ability to understand the needs, feelings and thoughts of others by consciously working hard at communicating democratically.

Why you need it

1. Negotiations.

2. Motivating people with a variety of backgrounds.

3. Building trust within your team.

4. Leveraging your team to get to the best position of insight possible.

The internet will give you a broad description of the noun, paired with many fluffy blogs about modern leaders making people feel nice and buying new kombucha flavours for their office. This is important, but this is where it starts to feel fluffy.

It's also lazy to think you are ticking the box by being a "nice" leader. Empathetic leadership requires real, deliberate, work.

Being a business leader is not a popularity contest. It's about making decisions that consider the collective, not the individual. This often means that with empathy, you will understand someone's position viscerally, and then you'll disagree with it and still move forward. You can only know you're right when you fully understand the opposing view. Otherwise, you're just single-minded, also known as "dumb".

The real benefits of empathic leadership are perspective and intuition. 

This is draining. Remember, empathy is about sharing others' feelings, so you feel it when you have to tell someone they are wrong or, worse, let them go. The cost – of balancing empathetic leadership with making hard decisions requires grit and often experience, but even for the most potent leaders, this can be draining.

How to test for it

Consider the last time you saw someone on your team struggling, maybe missing things, insufficient attention to detail, being late to work or going off strategy.

Did you:

(A) Tell them to get back on task.

(B) Create a moment where they could speak openly and ask them what is creating this change.

It's obvious which answer puts you in the empathy boat.

How to lead with empathy

1. Spend the first 30% of your 1-1s not discussing work. Use the phrase; "how are you personally and professionally". This distinguishes the two and ensures they do not just say "yes, good, I hit my target".

2. Actively look for signs of burnout. Particularly at this time of year (November).

3. React with compassion when someone is experiencing issues.

4. Demonstrate a willingness to help your team in and out of work. Prove that communication turns to action, creating a feedback loop that inspires more communication.

As an empathic leader, you can truly get the most out of people. The gift of intuition helps you know when to push and when to pull back from driving those around you. Perspective enables you to see things from more angles than just your own. Great leaders use these benefits to orient their peers, team, org, to motivate and make good decisions. Not to be liked.

Thank you, have a good week, Caspar.

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