October 3, 2023

What I Learned About Empathy and Its Importance for Leadership

A quick read describing Nick's philosophy on how to "do" empathy, and how his experiences have deepened its meaning.

What I Learned About Empathy and Its Importance for Leadership

A topic I often address as I engage with leaders is the importance of empathy to leading well.  What I mostly cover is the WHY behind its importance – that being an empathetic leader allows you to form a much deeper connection with those you lead.  Through empathy, we can meet people where they are and make them feel seen.  We can develop a deeper understanding of what makes them tick and find more bespoke ways of motivating and inspiring them. We can create an environment that allows them to thrive in the workplace and find meaning in their careers – which is ultimately what all of us want most.

What I talk less about when engaging leaders on the topic is what empathy looks like.  How do you “do” empathy? Empathy requires three steps – first you must recognize the emotions being expressed by the other person, next you have to put yourself in their shoes so that you can connect with them, and lastly you have to express these feelings back to them in some way.  It’s this last step that has always been difficult for me to describe to the leaders I work with.  It’s difficult for me because, as someone who tends to be guarded with their feelings and emotions, I don’t always know how best to respond in those moments that require empathy.  

When my son William died, I experienced empathy from the people around me in abundance. I witnessed many different manifestations of empathy, but the one that stands out the most came from a complete stranger.  In my book, My Teacher, My Son – Lessons on Life, Loss and Love, I share an encounter I had with an EMT in the moments just after seeing William’s dead body for the first time.  This experience showed me that for an empathetic response to really connect, one must let down their guard and express what they are feeling.  When this happens, each person reveals their own emotions, and a deep connection is formed. It is the ultimate selfless act.  

Now when a leader asks me, “How do you ‘do’ empathy?”, I have an answer.  It requires a level of vulnerability that can be difficult for many, particularly in a professional setting. We must embrace the idea of being vulnerable and express how we feel without restraint.