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Understanding Empathic Leadership

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Good leaders relate and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives. They know how to motivate individuals and teams to be the best they can be because they are emotionally intelligent and understand people and what drives them.

In our first feature celebrating International Leadership week Mindfulness Executive and Leadership Coach Amy McCae discusses the importance of empathy in being an effective leader. 

Emotional intelligence is as the ability to recognise, understand, evaluate, and manage your own emotions as well recognise, understand, evaluate, and influence the emotions of others for the purpose of relating and communicating more effectively. When you are emotionally intelligent you are able to understand your own emotions and those of others and use that information as a guide to make conscious choices for better outcomes.

Daniel Goleman, Psychologist and leader in emotional intelligence, states that EI encompasses five domains: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, social skills, and EMPATHY.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” At its simplest empathy is the ability to recognise and experience the emotions of another.

The two most common talked about types of empathy are cognitive and emotional.

Cognitive Empathy is knowing, it’s in the mind. This is imagining yourself in another’s shoes. For example, when a colleague is sick you understand they are not feeling well or when a team member is promoted you can relate to their joy and excitement.


Emotional Empathy is feeling another’s emotions. This may be a felt sense of the emotion of another in your body. For example, when someone is crying, and you begin to feel sad or when you have a meeting with someone that is full of energy and exited and despite being tired you begin feeling energetic.

Feeling someone else’s emotions can be overwhelming and confusing. Therefore, high levels of self-awareness are essential. When you are self-aware you can begin to establish boundaries so that you can recognise what are your emotions and what emotions belong to someone else.

It is important to remember that empathy doesn’t say, ”I will take on all of your emotions and problems and lose myself in your troubles.” Empathy says, “I feel what you are feeling. I understand what you are going through.” And it asks questions for the purpose of understanding.

Empathy isn’t agreeing. It is validating. It’s letting someone know they matter. Validating another’s experience is one of the most powerful things a leader can do.

Empathy isn’t agreeing. It is validating. It’s letting someone know they matter.

There is also Compassionate Empathy. Empathy is what moves you to feel compassion and compassion is what drives you to act and want to relieve another’s suffering.

Empathy reminds us that we don’t really know what the other person is going through, and it gives us the opportunity to learn more. Empathy invites us to cultivate compassion and curiosity for ourselves, our experiences, and for others.

Imagine walking into a meeting feeling energetic and confident and without anyone even speaking you know and feel the frustration, anger, or hurt in the room?

What are you going to do? Would you continue as planned? Is there potential for a better outcome knowing your emotions and the emotions of the room?

This could be the opposite where you walk into a room feeling sad or depressed and the energy of the room is positive, happy, uplifting. If you are aware, you have a choice. As a leader it is your job to set the tone and energy for your interactions with others.

You don’t adjust to the energy of the room. You shift it.

The traits below relate to the energy that you bring to a room. They help you inspire emotions in others that support trust, compassion, curiosity, psychological safety, insight, innovation, and more. You don’t have to embody them all – explore them to see how they feel and practise one or two that come naturally.

  • Sensitivity: This ability to pick up on the emotions you feel within yourself, from the person you are talking to, or from a group.
  • Solidity: Imagine being a mountain: you are grounded and present as well as open and receptive. This aspect will influence how people respond to you.
  • Voice: The words you choose, the tone of your voice, your pauses, and your rhythm will impact how receptive people are to your vision and leadership.
  • Authenticity: Find your own style by identifying when you feel the most natural and be the person you are in that moment. You must be authentic for people to trust you.
  • Disclosure: Be willing to be vulnerable and to share personal stories. A “hero’s journey” makes you more relatable.
  • Non-identification: What other people choose to do is not always because of you. Not everyone will follow your lead, so don’t take it personally.
  • Curiosity: Ask questions, listen intentionally, and explore ideas, values, and experiences in an open-minded and genuine way. When you are receptive, it opens space for others to be as well.
  • Celebration of success: Recognise, acknowledge, and revel in small successes. This encourages others to have supportive mindsets and perceptions.

Leading with empathy has countless personal and professional benefits. The benefits of being an empathic leader include increased confidence in decision making, improved wellbeing and resilience, effective communication for better relationships, and reduced stress, overwhelm, anxiety, and burnout.

Empathy also cultivates trust, a sense of purpose and belonging, boosts productivity and engagement, supports effective collaboration, improves culture and motivation, elevates customer satisfaction, increases innovation as well as psychological safety, and even increases sales, loyalty, and referral-giving offering businesses a greater competitive advantage and market value.

Empathy is a gift we can all practice. Understanding empathy can change your life, the lives of those around you, and even your business. What ways will you embrace being an empathic leader today?

World Wellbeing Week 2024

June 24 – June 30

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