Don’t just know empathy, practise it!

To start with, Johnny Bravo, the A-10 pilot—who believed that his greatest asset was the empathy he had for the men on the ground, learned what it really takes to be a leader a few years after his experience in Afghanistan. It was after he landed his plane following a training mission in the Nevada desert. His crew chief, the airman assigned to look after his aircraft, came over to greet him and help him out of the jet.

On that day, the crew chief was off his game and distracted, and Johnny Bravo snapped at him. He expects the people around him to be at their best so he can be at his best and support those on the ground. He would later find out that he was wrong, snapping at him. Remember, we are not allowed to form any opinion on those under our sphere of influence until we first hear from them.

His crew apologized. He was tired because he did not get enough sleep, he explained. He was going to night school and he and his wife had a new baby—who kept them up at night. And it was at that moment that Johnny Bravo realized that empathy is not something we give to the nameless, faceless people we aim to serve. Empathy is not something we offer to our customers or employees from nine (9) to five (5). Empathy is, as Johnny Bravo explains, “a second by second, minute by minute service that (we) owe to everyone if (we) want to call (ourselves) a leader.

Leadership is not a license to do less; it is a responsibility to do more. And that is the trouble. Leadership takes work, hard-work. It takes time and energy. The effects are not always easily measured and they are not always immediate. Leadership is always a commitment to human beings and being empathic is very core to leadership. In fact, on the condition that you remove empathy from leadership, then what you would have left is not going to be leadership. What most people call leadership today is not leadership because it is void of empathy.

Everything about being a leader is like being a parent. It is about committing to the well-being of those in our care and having a willingness to make sacrifices to see their interest advanced so that they may carry our banner long after we are gone, but it is sad today in Nigeria that many leaders do not care about those following their leadership. They expect those coming after them to make sacrifices for them without them making an amount of sacrifice that is greater in proportion—in return. In fact, the only yardstick that many people use to determine who a leader is in Nigeria is knowledge, not love.

A few weeks ago, I was coaching a top leader across the pond, talking to him about the importance of empathy. When I told him that the best leaders are empathic leaders, he challenged me on the spot. When it came to his own leadership, he said, he didn’t want to come across as weak.

Many people view displaying empathy as weakness. I understand that point of view, but it is not correct. As this leader’s coach, I was charged with helping him see the true nature of empathy and how it could not only benefit his own leadership but also do good and well for others.

Empathy is a right-brain activity, the kind that many people consider a touchy-feely discipline—a soft skill, as it is called these days. But at its core, empathy is a valued currency. Sometimes, leaders need to get out of their own shoes and put on someone else’s to truly understand what is happening around them.

Cultivating empathy as a leadership skill allows you to create bonds of trust. It gives you insight into what others are feeling and thinking, and it helps you understand their reactions. At its foundation, empathy informs your decision making by sharpening your perceptions and intuition.

So getting back to my client, here are the tips I shared with him about being empathic without being perceived as being weak:

Truly listen: Empathic leaders do not just listen but they truly listen. They first listen to understand, not thinking on what they are going to say next without first listening with a rapt attention. Empathic leaders are good listeners. They are not busy with their phones while claiming to be listening. When you are talking to them, they give you a total attention.

Don’t interrupt: Empathic leaders know how easily distractions can affect the quality of listening. A distracted listener often grows impatient or frustrated and interrupts the speaker in an attempt to get them to move along with what they are saying, leaving the speaker unable to express their thoughts or make their point. However strong the distraction, do not rush people or cut them off—or worse, try to be the kind of fixer who has a slapdash solution to everything. Giving people the space to say what they have to say is an important form of empathy.

Be fully present: When an empathic leader speaks with someone, you would never catch them glancing at their watch or scanning the room or checking their phone. It is very simple: When someone is talking to you, listen to him or her. If they are expressing their feelings, be there with them. Concentrate on putting yourself in their shoes and think of ways you can be supportive.

Leave judgment behind: Even when the feelings of others are in direct opposition to their own, empathic leaders do not judge. They let go of their biases and allow themselves to be open to new perspectives. When you are an empathic leader, you do not look at the feelings of others in terms of agreement or disagreement but as a window into their perceptions and world view, an opportunity to better understand what they are experiencing and expressing…

Rounding off, when a leader lacks empathy, others approach with their guard up and everyone feels alone in looking after their own interests. With an empathic leader, though, everyone knows they can be open about what they are thinking and feeling without being judged, dismissed or ignored. Become an empathic leader, today!

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