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Using Your Head, Heart and Hands to Become a More Empathetic Leader

Who is the best boss you ever had? Think about what that person did and how they made you feel.

I would guess, with a high degree of confidence, that your best boss had one or more of these characteristics: They were a great listener, cared about you as an individual, had your back, communicated well and encouraged and supported you.

Why am I so confident in that assertion? I’ve asked hundreds of people to describe their best boss and those are some of the most frequent responses. More often than not, when people talk about their best boss, they describe someone who is empathetic.

The value of empathetic leadership has been in the spotlight, mostly due to the adverse effects of the pandemic. In fact, Forbes touted empathy as the most important leadership skill. It’s hard to call out just one skill as being the most important of all the skills a leader could possess, but there’s no denying that empathetic leadership produces positive results.

Studies have shown that employees with highly empathetic leaders report higher levels of creativity (61 percent) and engagement (76 percent) than those with less empathetic leaders (13 percent and 32 percent, respectively). Research also correlates empathetic leadership with higher employee job satisfaction, performance and innovation.

Being an empathetic leader starts with the simple truth that leadership is about people. If you’re going to lead effectively, you must be attuned to your people’s thoughts, feelings and beliefs. You must be able to communicate this understanding in ways that build trust and respect, and cause people to feel a sense of safety and belonging. That’s what it means to lead with empathy.

Is empathy a skill that can be learned and developed? The answer is yes, it can. But leaders must understand how the head, heart and hands must work together to develop empathy.


The Head (mindset)


Being an empathetic leader starts with the head — having the right mindset of what it means to lead with empathy.

One important mindset empathetic leaders adopt is emotional intelligence. Travis Bradberry, co-author of “Emotional Intelligence 2.0,” describes four key skills of emotional intelligence:

  • Self-awareness is your ability to accurately perceive your emotions and stay aware of them as they happen.
  • Self-management is your ability to use awareness of your emotions to stay flexible and positively direct your behavior.
  • Social awareness is your ability to accurately pick up on emotions in other people and understand what is really going on.
  • Relationship management is your ability to use awareness of your emotions and the others’ emotions to manage interactions successfully.

Bradberry’s research shows that 90 percent of top performers are high in emotional intelligence. Conversely, just 20 percent of bottom performers are high in emotional intelligence. Empathetic leaders understand the importance and value of being emotionally intelligent, and actively work to cultivate their EQ.

A second mindset empathetic leaders embrace is that their job is to serve the best interests of their people. Many leaders prioritize achieving results over cultivating good relationships, when in reality, focusing on both is the key to success.

Ken Blanchard and I highlight this concept in our recent book, “Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust.” Simple truth number one is, “Servant leadership is the best way to achieve both great results and great relationships.”

By building trust and displaying empathy with their team members, trusted servant leaders are able to bring out the best performance of their people, which in turn leads to the achievement of organizational goals. 


The Heart (beliefs)


A person’s heart represents their most treasured beliefs and feelings about their role as a leader. Empathetic leaders have a few core beliefs that drive the way they interact with others.

The first is that they believe everyone is unique and has inherent value and worth. No two people are exactly the same and it’s wrong to assume you can take a one-size-fits-all approach to leading them. Empathetic leaders believe people want to be treated fairly, kindly and with honesty and respect.

Empathetic leaders also believe that people want to be known and valued as individuals in the workplace, and not just anonymous workers showing up to do a job. These leaders understand that people bring their whole selves to work, not just their work persona.

Some leaders find this idea frustrating and wish people would leave their “personal stuff” at home before they show up to work. That’s simply not the reality of leading people, because as one of my mentors told me, people are messy! Empathetic leaders embrace leading the whole person, messiness and all.


The Hands (beahviors)


A leader’s hands — their behaviors — is where empathetic leadership comes alive. It’s important to not just know empathy is important, leaders must show it through their actions.

In practical terms, what does empathy look like? By no means is this list exhaustive, but here are several key behaviors leaders use that demonstrate empathy:

  • Active listening. Leaders should actively listen to their employees by paying attention to their concerns, ideas and emotions without interrupting or rushing to provide solutions. This shows they value their employees’ perspectives and empathize with their experiences.
  • Share your feelings.Appropriately sharing your own feelings develops trust and safety in your relationships with others. Making yourself vulnerable to others by sharing your feelings is a way of extending trust to them. It creates great rapport and connection in the relationship.
  • Displaying compassion. Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” I like to think of compassion as “empathy in action.” It’s translating our feelings of empathy (taking the perspective of, and feeling the emotions of another person) into helpful actions that meet the needs of others.
  • Transparent and honest communication. Leaders demonstrate empathy by being open, honest and transparent in their communication. They share information, give feedback constructively and ensure employees are aware of the organization’s goals, challenges and decisions.
  • Providing development opportunities. Empathetic leaders invest in their employees’ growth and development. They recognize their potential, provide learning opportunities and support career advancement. This demonstrates they value their employees’ professional aspirations and are committed to their long-term success.

At its core, empathetic leadership is about being an others-focused leader. It’s about being in tune with the needs of your people and responding in tangible ways that demonstrate your care and concern. To do so, a leader’s head, heart and hands must be in alignment.

And how, exactly, do people respond when their leaders act this way? They pledge their loyalty, trust and commitment to that leader, which results in greater productivity, innovation and creativity. Who wouldn’t want that?


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