This Potentially Counterintuitive Habit is Critical to Your Success

As a leader, it’s critical to seek first to understand other people before you try to make yourself understood. The basic principle here is empathy—putting yourself in the place of others so you can know and feel what they know and feel.

Why is empathy a crucial habit for a leader?

  • Picture a museum curator with no empathy for her patrons—how long will she keep the doors open if she remains totally disconnected from their needs?
  • How about a project leader with no empathy for his team members?
  • A teacher with no empathy for his students?
  • An aeronautical engineer with no empathy for the crew on the plane she’s designing?
  • A hospital administrator with no empathy for patients?

Obviously, most leaders have some empathy already. The problem is not that they can’t understand people, but that they feel they must solve all their problems. Most leaders have a compulsion to fix everything at best and smooth things over at worst. It’s a natural urge to want to jump in and save the day, to be the answer to everyone’s problems.

For many, empathy is counterintuitive.

“I don’t have time to listen,” says the notorious Alpha leader. “I already know what the problem is and I know how to solve it. My brain is way ahead of theirs. Time is precious. Why should I waste it sitting and listening to people?”

You practice empathy just by listening—nothing else. You listen without interrupting, without judging, analyzing, or answering back in your head. You’re not thinking about what you’re going to say next. Instead, you’re listening closely both to what the person is saying and to what they’re feeling.

Your goal is to understand. If you’re a leader, that’s your job.You can’t connect with stakeholders and colleagues without empathy and understanding. Only by getting into the shoes of another can you serve them in a customized way—the way they want to be served.

Only an empathic leader can unleash the potential of other people. Leaders without empathy are literally working in the dark because they’re ignorant of the passions, talents, and skills of their team members. You can’t possibly discover and capitalize on the motivations of another human being without knowing the person deeply.

For instance, as Professor Heidi Halvorsen says, some people eagerly embrace big grand goals, while others are wary and skeptical, preferring more vigilance and less risk. Unless you know the “motivational fit” of each team member, you’ll make poor choices about motivating them; the only way to uncover that motivational fit is to listen and understand.

Empathy is essential to effective leadership, and it can’t be faked. Stephen R. Covey says:

“Leaders who take an interest in people merely because they should will be both wrong and unsuccessful. They will be wrong because regard for people is an end in itself. They will be unsuccessful because they will be found out.”  – Stephen R. Covey

All the best- Patrick