In her renowned classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, novelist Harper Lee writes, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” In a statement that rings true to this day, Lee perfectly encapsulates one of the single most important traits one should aspire to have, especially as a leader: empathy.
Empathy is the ability to both recognize and understand the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of another. It involves being able to see a situation from the point of view of another, realizing that the aggregate of a person’s upbringing, background, and values can have a profound impact on how they regard something. Ultimately, it is the understanding that there is no one right way to view the world. For some, it may simply be regarded as another “soft skill” one might be able to add to their resume; however, it is so much more.
So how does this connect to leadership? Leadership is first and foremost effective communication between a leader and their team, which isn’t always the easiest skill to acquire. Communication can quickly fall flat when one is attempting to convey an idea, only for the other person to vehemently disagree because they have a different perspective. Hours later, neither have come to an agreement on anything, simply because most often, we are more focused on wanting to be right as opposed to seeing things from a new perspective or learning something new. We care much less about compromise and understanding than winning an argument, the folly of our nature.
Empathy seeks to correct this unproductive vice, helping to build bridges between the great divide that many in America experience as a result of different walks of life and cultures. By truly placing yourself in someone else’s shoes, you might be able to see why they disagree with you on a certain matter, allowing for personal growth and a stronger connection. As a leader, this ability is critical. When people feel as though you truly strive to empathize with them and take time to understand them, you truly inspire steadfast loyalty and passion.
According to a Development Dimensions International study in 2016 of 15,000 leaders in business, there is a strong link between empathy and superior leadership performance. Overall, empathy has a positive effect on crucial areas of leadership such as decision making, coaching, engaging, and planning and organizing. However, the study worryingly reports that only 40% of those leaders led with empathy, reflecting a trend that has only become more prominent as time has passed.
In an era replete with lack of communication, empathy is more important than ever. If we truly want to make a change, we must recognize that others have experiences and upbringings that have affected their take on the world. Even if we might never be able to live through the same experiences someone else has, we can certainly try to understand them, as the effort makes all the difference. To lead the world into a brighter future, we must be able to understand each other’s pasts.
Image Source: Unsplash by Tim Marshall