Enabling Leadership through Empathy, and Spirituality

Enabling Leadership through Empathy, and Spirituality


This is a series of essays about Leadership and why it is different in this decade than the previous several.


World is a different place now, global economy, talent as a great equalizer, supply chains crossing continents. Business is conducted at an aggressive pace, it is knowledge based and leverages a more dynamic and younger work force. Even though the last two decades saw a significant change in how business is conducted, the transition from old to new economy is almost complete. Old leadership and management was based on hierarchy, command and control, and stove piped information flow.  The transition to the new economy is framed around collaboration, global connection and highly consumerized workforce. A vertical chain of command based management to horizontal collaborative management. As the chain of command structures transform from one end of the spectrum to the other, so does the need to look at leadership differently. It changed from a vertical model to a shared and distributed model.


With that as the preamble, three important questions to answer –

        What is the definition of an effective leader?

        What skill will differentiate an effective leader?

        What does effective leadership look like?


Even though a lot has changed, what has not changed – success of companies depends on their leaders. Any leader, every leader in the new world needs to have certain traits that will make them indispensable to companies. Leadership is all about creating success for themselves, the teams they lead and the companies they drive.


Leadership is the key differentiator for success in either world. It is the most important determinant for a company to rise above. Leadership has many elements to being successful, but the most important one in the emerging world is “EMPATHY”.


Companies that lack leaders without that trait, will not be able to sustain their success even if they win in the short term. They will eventually hit the ground. They will be unable to attract and keep the talent that could become the basis for long term success.


Let’s look at “Empathy”. When you track the etymology for empathy, its genesis is from the Greek work “empatheia” and description is “power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings”. Is it counter intuitive to lead with empathy? As J Carla Nortcutt so famously said “The goal of many leaders is to get people to think more highly of the leader. The goal of a great leader is to help people to think more highly of themselves.” Leadership is not about raising by yourself, it is not about individual glory, it is not about seeking attention to yourself. On the contrary leadership is about serving others, increasing their potential, serving a purpose. Self-centered leaders eventually fail. Leaders are successful only if others want them to be successful. One of the key ways to make others want you to be successful is to establish an empathy based relationship. In order to truly lead and motivate, a leader needs to understand the teams’ feelings, desires and purpose. Leadership is a team sport. A true leader is able to help others become something that they could never become on their own. That feeling of helping somebody else be more successful than they could become on their own is what motivates good leaders to rise above and be the best leaders. When you understand the needs of the others, it truly becomes a relationship that fosters success both for the leader and the one being led.


As humans we are a species that have empathy built into our brains. So why are some leaders more capable of this while others are not? Empathy in a leader always starts with self-awareness. The more we become self-aware, the better of in being able to lay a clear path not only for us but for the people we lead. As Senge et all write in “Presence”, “You must understand yourself first”. Before you can become a true leader and sustainable leader, you need to have an awareness of self, an understanding of others in your team and being able to lead them to fulfill their purpose. The key word in the statement being “their” purpose. That is the crux of leading a empathy based team. How do you empathize with a person that their purpose becomes your purpose and that their purpose is aligned to the team purpose. In a world where there is a common misconception that “lead” in a leader means “Directive – I can Do” it is easy to lose this with “I can influence”. It is common to associate a strong leader with a “red”. It is common to associate a red leader with “success”. Empathy based leadership creates a sustained success for the team. As a human we are all driven by one trait at the visceral level – wanting to do more for people that make us successful. There is an innate desire in all of us to serve. The true leader not only brings this out in him but his influence becomes multiplied when he brings out this trait in the people he leads. As John Maxwell so famously said “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care”. Truly influential leaders are able to bring out that human element in each of their teams. We all have it, the trick is to surface it, nurture it and leverage it.


In the new world of flatter organizations, shared services based organization, non-stove pipe organizations, it becomes all the more important for a leader to have Empathy. In the prior world, empathy was not as necessary as following the chain of command. There was a hierarchy and accountability based organization chart went from the CEO to the Security guard. It was built on layered management models. The reason for the chain of command was information flow. In the new world leaders have instant access to information? They have tools that can be leveraged to get to information, in some cases they know instantly what is going well or not going well anywhere in the organization. There have a sense of where the world is going and where the markets are leading in real time. So layered management for information does not work any longer. Most large companies have a global human supply chain. Information is no longer a “tradeable” commodity to make a team successful. So what motivates teams to be more successful – it is tapping in to the innate human feelings. It is being able to influence their feelings. It is being able to make them be self-aware. It is being able to make them self-evolve. Journey of awareness to evolution takes empathy to be successful.


In the next essay I will tackle a trait that we do not talk about as much when it comes to leadership – “spirituality”. Spirituality does not always mean belief in god but belief in something more powerful than a human being.



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