Leading with empathy

Being a good leader takes a lot of different skills, one of the most important being able to engage empathetically with others.

Becoming a leader isn’t a one-stop-shop. Instead, it takes a diverse and integrated set of skills. The great news is that leaders aren’t born; instead, these skills can be practiced and applied to various situations and groups. Traditionally defined leadership skills include determination, vision and intelligence, but being a good leader takes much more than these. The other side of the leadership skills coin, per say, is a set of skills that are sometimes considered “soft skills.” Instead, we’ll call these skills “transdisciplinary” skills, because they are important and span across a variety of disciplines, sectors and situations.

Transdisciplinary skills include things like active listening, conflict resolution and empathy. In this article, we’re going to focus on empathy specifically. Empathy is often framed with two very common sayings: “take a walk in someone else’s shoes” and “look at the other side of the story.” The key take-away from these metaphors is that being empathetic means working to recognize and understand the experiences, perspectives and feelings of other people.

Daniel Goldman, co-director of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence at Rutgers University, spoke about the integral role of empathy in quality leadership, saying, “Leaders with empathy do more than sympathize with people around them: They use their knowledge to improve their companies in subtle, but important ways."

In the same Harvard Business Review article, “What Makes a Leader,” Goldman notes that increased globalization and collaborative team structures in workplaces make an ability to communicate empathetically across diverse cultures and groups invaluable!

Just like other leadership skills, empathy can be practiced and strengthened in your personal toolbox. Here are four ways to be more empathetic in your day-to-day life, adapted from “5 Ways to Be More Empathetic,” a Times article based on Roman Krznaric’s book “Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It.”

  1. Actively listen to others. We often listen to others so we feel prepared to respond. Instead, listen to others with the aim of understanding what they are trying to say. How do they feel? What do they need?
  2. Converse with a stranger. Many of the times when empathy doesn’t lead our decision-making is when we make quick judgements and assumptions about others. Start by working to understand your implicit biases. Then, take time to have a conversation with someone you don’t know; it will help you get to know them and challenge some of those assumptions and biases you've uncovered.
  3. Make the other shoe decision. If empathy is “taking a walk in another person’s shoes,” you have to make the conscious decision to do so. To learn more about doing this, check out Empathy Library’s Top Ten most inspiring books and films on empathy.
  4. Read the nonverbals. A lot of our emotions are communicated through nonverbal means. Be a critical observer of those in your work, family or social circles. If their nonverbals register as anything but content, take the time to check in with them and see how they are (see No. 1).

Please use these tips to practice your empathy skills and become the best leader you can be! To learn about the positive impact of Michigan State University Extension’s 4-H youth leadership, civic engagement, citizenship and global/cultural programs, read our 2015 Impact Report: “Developing Civically Engaged Leaders.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H positively impacted individuals and communities in 2015, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.


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