March Madness has come and gone once again. Even for those non-basketball fans, who doesn’t love March Madness? In true Madness form, this year’s tournament delivered some epic games (UNC v. Kansas), monumental runs (Saint Peters), and a historic legacy coming to an end (Coach K…at least, on the court).

Duke’s Coach Krzyzewski (affectionately known as Coach K) will go down as one of the most highly respected and beloved coaches of all time…in any sport. After reading multiple articles on his coaching career, reading excerpts from past and present players and coaches, it made me really consider — what is the “it” that makes a great leader?

There are a lot of specific qualities and traits you’ll find in great leadership, but at the cornerstone of it all is “empathy.” The longer I reflect on the best leaders I’ve had in my lifetime, the more I realize each one had an exceptional way of demonstrating empathy. From my parents and my wife to my pastors, teachers, coaches, and even bosses, many have shown me that to lead properly, you must start with empathy. And given the environment of today, empathy is more important than ever.

Empathy in Leadership

The importance of empathy in leadership is not a new concept, but given today’s new challenges in business (i.e., return to the office or working remotely, the Great Resignation, diversity, equity, and inclusion, etc.), it certainly takes on a new meaning and priority.

It should be common knowledge that the practice of empathy (and it is a practice) leads to positive interactions with others. I would argue, it’s just as critical to other aspects of business —from driving innovation to talent attraction and retention.

I’m reminded of a quote from Oprah Winfrey, leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.

Empowering Leaders During Today’s Challenges

Mental health issues are on the rise, turnover and customer experience are on the decline, and inflation is negatively impacting almost every business — to name a few challenges we’re facing. Given the unending stressors we all seem to face today, who couldn’t use a shot of inspiration and empowerment from our leaders.

Whether it’s pandemic fatigue, general burnout, or lack of in-person interactions, some may have a hard time finding happiness at work. Empathy could easily be the cure we’ve been looking for.

Catalyst performed a study of 889 employees, which identified that empathy has a powerful effect on both individuals and teams. When working with more empathetic leaders, business saw substantial increases in:

hands holding each other

Tips to Be Empathetic

So, what can we do to be better empathetic leaders? Below are just a few tips to help us lead with empathy.

Be Understanding Open to Different Perspectives

Our world is evolving and changing at an incredibly rapid pace. Our society and businesses are more diverse than ever. Have candid conversations and encourage open dialogue that address fears and concerns within your staff. Employers that are able to openly discuss these concerns without employees fearing retaliation will ultimately build trust and strengthen their company and culture.

Be an Active Listener and Self Aware

Communication is key and being an active listener will foster respect and trust throughout the organization. Be aware of your own fears, biases, and positions on difficult topics. As a leader, you’re ultimately making decisions for the greater good of the business — not the personal greater good.

Communicate Openly and Transparently

Communication between leaders and staff should be open and transparent, while maintaining a professional tone. Often times, leaders keep certain business fears, concerns, and shortcomings to themselves. Being able to share these openly and honestly will remove a potential vail of distrust or dishonesty.

Through this practice, you are showing that leaders are human too. Leaders don’t have to have it all figured out all the time. Be honest about the business and confident on how you’ll respond — this is really what instills loyalty and pride within the organization.

Stay Optimistic

Business isn’t always rainbows and sunshine. Being optimistic doesn’t mean being delusional. I think optimism is infectious. It’s an unwavering confidence that no matter how bad things may look or seem, this too shall pass, and the organization can tackle any obstacle thrown its way. It’s leadership’s optimistic faith in their employees (the backbone of every organization) that will inspire and empower unrelenting effort to get the job done. This display of optimism delivers the message that leadership values the skills, knowledge, and work ethic each employee brings to the table.

Create Personal Connections

The great Simon Sinek has said many times, “if you don’t understand people, you don’t understand business.”

The fact is, we will spend more time with the people we work with than those we value and love the most in our lives (family and friends). It’s important to know your fellow colleagues on a personal level. No, you don’t need to know what they have in their bank account or what their deepest darkest secrets are. Simply having knowledge of what’s going on in their lives — kids in school, parents are sick, the car broke down — these little things can go such a long way to understanding why people do what they do.

What happens in our business lives, we take home with us, and what happens at home, we take to our business life. There is no work-life balance — it’s all intertwined. It’s genuine human connection that ultimately builds trust and loyalty, and it takes intentional effort and action to make that connection.

In my opinion, leadership is empathy in action. If you want better results, take action now!

What are your thoughts on empathy and leadership? What are your tips for better leadership? Do you have questions on how to actively change the way you approach leadership in your organization? Reach out to us. We’d be happy to work with you on this.