Leading with Empathy

Written by: Patrick Palmer, CEO, Cornerstone Defense

There is much dialogue around leadership style in today’s business environment. Articles, blogs and LinkedIn posts are written on the importance of good leadership, the consequences of good leadership, and most importantly, the net effect of a good leader’s impact.  After over 20 years in technology consulting within the defense and intelligence communities, I have spent a great deal of time managing, and working amongst other managers, whom have all had differing leadership styles. While there are many varied aspects to great leadership, my experience has shown that the most important trait in a great leader is empathy. 

Why empathy, above all else? While many different qualities can make a great leader, leading with empathy can be particularly useful when dealing with the difficult side of leadership. Here are 3 examples of how leading with empathy can turn tough situations into something positive:    

  1. Disagreements – If your colleagues find you to be an approachable and genuinely empathetic leader, they can much more openly disagree with you without fear of caustic reprisal. Whether working on a long project, or running day-to-day meetings, creating an environment of openness in these spaces allows employees voices to be heard, and this constructive disagreement can often lead to breakthroughs and innovation.    
  2. Conflicts– Conflicts regularly arise in the workplace, sometimes between employees, or sometimes when an employee might be struggling in performance, for example. Addressing conflicts from an empathetic perspective can empower employees with the ability to make mistakes and grow from those mistakes.  You could think of this as the antithesis to the old-school philosophy, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” While that type of authoritative leadership can yield immediate results, it often stunts growth in an employee, discouraging them before they have reached their full potential. An organization that allows for respectful, and thoughtful conflict resolution is one where employees feel valued, which can improve both work ethic and attrition rates.
  3. Termination – Termination is always a difficult aspect of leadership, but there are many times when termination is not for cause.  It is just the way business works sometimes.  If you have been an empathetic mentor and leader, you have most likely gained greater trust from your employees. With that trust, termination conversations, while still always very hard, can become a little less about a personal attack and more about doing what is right for all parties involved when someone might just not be a fit for their position.

Speaking of being understanding, former Secretary of the Navy, Hondo Geurts once stated, “If at least 25% of the team’s projects do not fail, then we are not far enough to the edge”.  This sentiment gives freedom to his team to be the best they can, knowing their leader understands where they are coming from.  As executives, we invest more money in talent than any other aspect of our business. Why stifle that investment with bad policy or lack of trust and understanding in the team you assembled? When a leader lacks empathy, it stifles both the success of employees, as well as the success of the organization at large. 

Furthering our comprehension of the word, empathy, from Merriam-Webster:

“Empathy – The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”

From this definition, understanding may be the key aspect of leading with empathy.  Understanding what your employees need from you leads to creating an empowered and motivated team, even in the face of disagreement and conflict.  Empathetic leaders give their colleagues the tools, the support, and an environment where mistakes are not only tolerated but welcomed, for the sake of making sure employees feel they are treated with respect and are not just a number on a page. Most importantly, this type of leadership creates trust between employer and employee, breaking down outdated workplace philosophies built around hierarchy and deference. Clinical Psychologist Alexia Roncero wrote:

“Let us not forget that leadership doesn’t have to imply hierarchy, which is often an intimidating concept when one thinks about approaching a person who is at a higher level. Leadership is more related to being a person your team can look to for guidance and help.  An Empathetic leader leads his team of colleagues to success as opposed to managing.”

 Whether it’s a team of engineers building the next generation fighter jet, or a team of recruiters staffing an enterprise project for their customer, a culture of understanding can take a ‘good’ team to a ‘GREAT’ team, with the potential for exponential success. Which is exactly the environment we strive to create at Cornerstone Defense – one where all voices are heard, and where, with empathy, each difficulty becomes a new opportunity for progress.