“Leaders must either invest in a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior.” —Brené Brown
Whether it’s private sector or nonprofit, in communities, schools or government, we are hungry for courageous, empathetic leaders. We want to show up, learn and be inspired by them. We want to be those leaders.
Why does it seem so elusive to us? What gets in the way?
According to Dr. Brené Brown, the answer is shame and our own fear of vulnerability. In her book, Dare to Lead, Brown shares the results of her academic research. She found that many of us believe it’s better and safer to “armor up” and create “shame shields” to protect ourselves from risk, discomfort, shame, uncertainty and emotional exposure.
Would My Team Describe Me as an Empathetic Leader?
Leadership without empathy is not courageous. It happens when a leader is responding rather than experiencing, or when leadership is confused and uses sympathy, giving advice or offering judgment disguised as concern.
By contrast, empathetic leadership is about connecting to the emotions that underpin an experience. Empathy fuels connection and involves experiencing a feeling together.
Dr. Brown also says that empathy is the antidote to shame. It’s a linchpin for organizational cultures built on connection and trust, and an essential ingredient for any team that must take risks to be successful.
The Four Skills of Empathy
Scholar and nurse Teresa Wiseman identified four skills that constitute empathy in leadership.
Empathy Skill #1: Perspective-taking or seeing the world as others see it. Perspective-taking requires us to be a curious learner and not a “knower.” We each look at life through our own personal lens of experience; we can’t see through another person’s lens. But we can listen carefully to another person’s story and honor it as truth — even if it doesn’t fit with our experience of the situation. When we include and value these diverse perspectives, people and teams can achieve at the highest levels.
Empathy Skill #2: Non-judgment. Judgment happens when we’re caught in our own shame. We pick people who we think are “worse” than we are and judge them for it.
Staying out of judgement requires us to be aware of our own shame struggles. The greater our own self-worth and grounded confidence, the more we can let go of our judgments.
Empathy Skill #3: Understanding another person’s feelings. Most of us learned early that it isn’t okay to bring our emotions to work, and find it uncomfortable to deal with the emotions of others on the job. As Dr. Brown suggests, before we can understand others’ emotions, we need to be in touch with our own.
Empathy Skill #4: Emotional literacy, or communicating our understanding of another person’s feelings. Great leaders go beyond “mad, sad and glad.” Indeed, research suggests there are between 30 and 40 emotions that we can recognize and name.
Courageous leaders are comfortable with this range of emotions. This kind of emotional literacy is the foundation of empathy, self-compassion and shame resilience.
To Sum It Up: Empathy Is Connection
Empathy in leadership requires staying engaged and curious, feeling with someone to create deep connection. Empathy is not sympathy (enlightened leadership never starts with the words “At least . . .,” as in, “At least you still have a job” or “At least you can transfer to another division”). It never involves trying to fix something or give a perfect response. (Rarely does a response make anything better, and “perfect” never happens, anyway.) Genuine empathy says, “I may not have had the same experience as you, but I know this struggle, and you are not alone.”
I am fortunate to have had terrific mentors on my leadership journey, people whom I came to trust and who gave me the space to be vulnerable. They empowered me to share challenging experiences without shame. They often listened more than they spoke; gave guidance only when asked; and freely shared their own failures, vulnerability and shame. They felt with me; they didn’t fix me.
Empathy takes practice, and practice involves vulnerability, risk and emotional exposure. Leaders just need to know that when they mess it up, they’ll need to circle back, clean it up and try again.
Nothing worthwhile is achieved without risk. I’ll continue to practice to choose risking an open heart and open mind for deeper connection, growth and more success.
After 40 years as president of her print and marketing company, Eileen Rogers’ encore career is now as a leadership coach and business advisor through her company One Creative View. She is a seasoned and accomplished entrepreneur and recognized community leader who is fiercely passionate about supporting and growing more vulnerable and courageous leaders. She is a certified Dare to Lead™ facilitator, Integrative Enneagram practitioner and executive coach.