I recently reconnected with an old friend and colleague, who has been happy with his career but has reached the point where he is looking to level up. He knows he has leadership gaps to fill but isn’t sure how to prioritize them or where to start.

He asked me, “What would you say is the most important leadership attribute?”

Without a moment of hesitation, I answered, “Empathy.”

Of course, there are several leadership attributes that are important, and you might say empathy is the first among equals, but it is still on the top of my list. Empathy refers to the ability to recognize, understand, and appreciate the way others feel and is a crucial skill at the core of all effective work relationships.

It is the key to earning the right to influence others. 

Best-selling author and speaker Simon Sinek says empathy is crucial in establishing trust and perspective. “The lesson I’m learning is that I’m useless by myself. My success hinges entirely on the people I work with—the people who enlist themselves to join me in my vision. And it’s my responsibility to see that they’re working at their best capacity.”

Consider this scenario I helped a client work through. Sue manages Joe and is anxiously anticipating a difficult conversation with Joe about his performance. Joe doesn’t speak up in meetings and Sue’s superiors question his value. She considers him a key team member but doubts he’ll ever progress past his current role and resents being put in the position to defend him.

Her plan was to simply tell him all the things he was doing wrong and clarify the expectations again. How inspired do you think Joe will be to change, to show up at his natural best, to act with care for the team’s vision?

Working together, Sue and I devised a new approach to her conversation. The missing element? Empathy.

Creating an empathic conversation, Sue opened the space for real connection and a new perspective. She learned that Joe feels extreme levels of stress to share half-baked ideas in big meetings. Sue realized how much sense it made that someone she relies so heavily on for his analytical skills and process-driven methods might feel uncomfortable stretching into more conceptual communication.

Together they came up with strategies to help prepare Joe prior to meetings and to better communicate roles and responsibilities in to highlight Joe’s contributions to the broader team. Joe called Sue the next day and thanked her for such a great feedback session. A first for Sue (and probably for Joe, too)!

Let’s breakdown an empathic interaction into its core components:

  • Genuine curiosity – asking powerful questions with the humility to facilitate true dialog. 
  • Intuitive Listening – taking in what is shared verbally and non-verbally, with no preconceived notions, seeking to understand as opposed to reply.
  • Non-judgement – lack of right/wrong, good/bad thinking. Discernment is taking in the reality and facts of a situation. Judgment is a layer we add on top of that based on personal opinions and how we think things should be.
  • Acknowledgement and validation – communicating back to the speaker that you have really understood what he or she has been saying, that it makes sense and is ok to feel that way.
  • Vulnerability – creating an environment where it’s safe to ask for help by “taking off the amour” as Dr. Brené Brown says. 

A great place to start when proactively flexing your empathy muscle is to notice when someone’s behavior or performance is surprising to you or does not meet your expectations, how are you responding? Are you judging and jumping to conclusions? Doing all the talking and no real listening?

Practice putting yourself in other’s shoes and giving the benefit of the doubt. Sinek suggests starting with small gestures. “The daily practice of putting the well-being of others first has a compounding and reciprocal effect in relationships, in friendships, in the way we treat our clients and our colleagues.”

In what ways would practicing empathy in your leadership create positive and lasting results for you, your team, and your organization?


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