The #1 leadership skill you need today isn’t what you might think

Markets on trains. Regulatory uncertainty. Supply chain challenges. Inflationary pressure. Recession fears. Employee turnover. The big resignation. Quiet refusal. Reluctance to “return to office”. Work-life balance. Some of the issues wreaking havoc on today’s business market.

Add to the mix people’s personal challenges brought on by racism, ageism, sexism, disease, disability, inequality and more, and today’s business leaders face more workplace fires than ever before.

If you’re like many leaders today, you’re wondering how to successfully lead your team through all this fire. With greater vision or courage? More confidence or persistence? While these are all necessary leadership skills, the #1 skill leaders need today is not what you might think. While leaders must be authentic, resilient, creative and courageous, the #1 leadership skill leaders need today is empathy.

Why empathy? Because the ability to understand what your team members are going through – to put yourself in their shoes and see the world through their eyes – is key to earning their trust, commitment, loyalty and maximum effort. Considering what your employees face, both at work and at home, individually and as a team, can help you make decisions that work best – and ensure the best results – for everyone.

Showing your team members that you care about them can help boost their motivation—and your success. “Empathy for others helped me ignite teams to reach higher, to push through walls,” says Laura Desmond, a venture capitalist, board director at Adobe and DoubleVerify, and former CEO of Starcom MediaVest, the largest global media agency in the world.

With empathy, leaders can connect with talented people, building a team that works together to achieve a shared mission. Unafraid of working with people who are smarter or better than them in any way, effective leaders pride themselves on helping others become their best selves. “You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room,” says Winnie Park, CEO of fashion retailer Forever 21 and board director of EXPRESS and Dollar Tree Stores. “When the boss says ‘I don’t know. What do you think?’ it is very empowering for her people.

We improve our leadership skills by using empathy to notice what moves us, upsets us, affects us, or makes us feel passionate. Taking action, no matter how big or small, keeps the fire burning in us and ignites a spark in others. Leaders can transform apathy into empathy through the sheer power of their passion. The more leaders can motivate themselves and others, the more success they can achieve.

Empathy fuels your team’s purpose. “It’s very difficult to lead when you don’t care about people,” says Talitha Ramos Erickson, Chief Legal & Compliance Officer, Chief Transformation Officer and D&I Board Advisor for Barilla Group. “As one of my colleagues said about the pandemic, ‘We’re all in the storm, but we’re not all in the same boat.’ If you’re a leader, you have to recognize that everyone’s in a different boat. This is empathy.”

When you view people and situations through a more compassionate lens, you can rally your team around a shared vision—and that’s when leadership magic happens. This is because empathy helps with employee satisfaction, growth, innovation, productivity and retention. People in today’s workforce realize that they have choices when it comes to where and how they work. Employees choose to work for employers they trust. When people feel heard, understood, included and valued, they are more invested in the company’s success. This reduces employee churn – saving you time, effort and money – and improves your company culture.

The EY Empathy in Business 2021 survey, which tracks how empathy impacts leaders, employees and innovation in the workplace, confirms this. “Our research finds that empathy is not only a good thing, but also the glue and accelerator for business transformation in the next era of business,” notes Steve Payne, vice president of EY Americas – Consulting. “Empathy’s ability to create a culture of trust and innovation is unmatched, and this previously overlooked trait should be at the forefront of businesses across all industries.”

According to the EY study:

  • 89 percent of employees believe that empathy leads to better leadership.
  • 88 percent believe empathic leadership inspires positive change.
  • 87 percent believe that empathy enables trust between employees and leaders.
  • 85 percent report that empathic leadership increases employee productivity.

Perhaps the most tangible of all the benefits that empathy brings to the workplace is how it affects an organization’s bottom line. By increasing employee satisfaction and reducing attrition, and by driving innovation and collaboration, you can reduce talent acquisition, onboarding and training costs and increase creativity, efficiency and revenue. “I put myself in other people’s shoes, and that affects my reaction,” says Sarah Hofstetter, president of Profitero and director of the Campbell Soup Company board.

Having empathy doesn’t mean you’re not serious or that you’re a pushover. Success lies in balance: Exuding light and compassion while maintaining a strong inner resolve is a superpower that many of us develop without even realizing we’re honing it. It’s because we’ve been through the fire and come out the other side stronger.

Leaders are not just born, they are made. And it’s often the challenges we overcome, the chaos we work through, and the fires we fight that forge the inner strength it takes to lead and inspire. And this inner strength radiates like a beacon.

Leading with empathy is a powerful emotional intelligence skill. But just as necessary is the inner strength needed to manage the not-so-nice stuff. Mistakes, attitudes, dilemmas, crises – chaos to be mastered and resolved.

That’s when inner strength is most needed. Leaders must not only inspire, but also win. They have to make the hard decisions – and clean up the mess. Leaders need to take the bad with the good, and that’s what a strong inner core is for.

Setting boundaries around empathy can help you strike a balance that works for you and your organization. Ensuring that you are fair and consistent so that everyone knows where the safeguards are can lead to the openness and transparency that is desired and needed in today’s workplace.

So how can you foster a culture of empathy in your organization and successfully lead your team through the fire? A few ideas:

  • Engage regularly with your team members – both on work-related and non-work-related topics.
  • Schedule one-on-one meetings with associates to connect on a weekly basis.
  • Organize team-building opportunities to get to know employees in different settings or in different ways.
  • Create a safe and inclusive environment, but don’t just talk. Take actionable steps like enabling feedback (anonymous or not) and welcoming constructive criticism, new ideas, opinions and perspectives.
  • Ask team members what they think, then incorporate their thoughts into the decision-making process. Always listen and learn.
  • Encourage employees to be curious and always learning by planning continuing education opportunities so they can continue to grow.
  • Invite open communication by actively engaging in open and honest discussions. If you don’t always have the answers, it’s okay to say so. Show your humanity.

Empathy combined with inner strength can allow you to build a community of loyal employees, colleagues, customers and collaborators. Achieving a balance between sun and power makes a good leader; the kind of leader who inspires everyone to be their best every day. With empathy, you can lead your team through the fire and come out the other side stronger than ever.

Written by Eliza A. Schmitz.
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