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An Optimum Leader Must Exercise the Empathy Muscle

One morning I stopped at a Dunkin Donuts for coffee.  While leaving the parking lot, I was rushing and accidently backed up into a 3-day old $25,000 VW Passat.  The driver was livid and told me so in words and body language I choose not to repeat here.  I was already late for an appointment which was one of the factors that caused me to rush and cause the accident.  I needed to act and yet not rush.  I needed to influence the man and the situation. I needed to be a leader.  The owner was too emotional, understandably so, to lead the situation to an effective conclusion.

A leader is not a leader without voluntary followers.  Followers are not really followers unless they are volunteers.  Those who are compelled to comply to follow orders from a leader are not voluntary followers.  A key factor in developing voluntary followers is the ability to develop a relationship and to build trust.  A key factor in developing a relationship is the ability to express empathy.  I needed empathy to lead the situation with my VW friend.

Empathy is a valued element in building trust and relationships.  Empathy is an acknowledgement of emotion.  It’s an expression that you understand how important a situation is to someone and you appreciate how they are feeling about it.  The ability to show empathy is a crucial skill for all leaders.   Effective leaders must be able to influence the mood of others.  By doing so they create a positive context for an organization or team and that context leads to performance.

Empathy makes it safe to feel emotion, feel understood, feel acknowledged and feel cared for.  A lack of empathy is indifference.  Indifference suggests a lack of connection and lack of relationship.  Indifference creates anxiety, dissonance, dis-engagement and often deselection.

“…empathy means taking employee’s feelings into thoughtful consideration and then making intelligent decisions that work those feelings into the response.” (Daniel Goleman, 2002)

Empathic listening is the grease that keeps relationships running with minimal friction. In studies by Dr. Antonio Damasio medical patients who had brain damage to a certain part of the brain, and were therefore unable to express empathy, had diminished relationship building skills.  Their logic remained intact but their ability to build trust was clearly missing. (Damasio, 2005)

There is a great deal of research that connects empathy to business results. Studies that correlate empathy with the emotional state of front-line employees show a direct connection to customer satisfaction and employee retention.  Poor morale among those who “touch” the customer (the front-line worker) can predict turnover of customers and employees up to three years in advance. (Daniel Goleman, 2002)

Empathy; the ability to show that you care because you can imagine yourself in their situation and acknowledge what they are feeling and how intense that emotion must be.

How did I turn around the accident situation?  I immediately expressed empathy with my friend the VW Passat owner.  I admitted my mistake and told him how I could certainly understand how upsetting it must be for someone to hit his brand-new automobile. “I too would be upset”, I said.

He remained angry but shifted to cooperation from confrontation.  This cooperation allowed me to exchange insurance information with him more quickly and more accurately.  My ability to express empathy gave me the influence I needed to minimize the wasted time and to keep my client appointment with minimal delay.

Empathy, then, is an ability that every leader must add to their toolkit.  My VW friend was willing to cooperate quickly only because I expressed sincere empathy. He was willing to voluntarily follow my lead to exchange information quickly and efficiently while avoiding the negative emotion that could have become a barrier.

Emotion cannot be avoided in the workplace nor anywhere else.  It must be managed.  It must be acknowledged.  Empathy is like a muscle that need exercise to be most effective. Make it a daily habit. It’s costs nothing and it saves relationships, trust, and time.

Wally Hauck, PhD has a cure for the “deadly disease” known as the typical performance appraisal.  Wally holds a doctorate in organizational leadership from Warren National University, a Master of Business Administration in finance from Iona College, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania.   Wally is a Certified Speaking Professional or CSP.  Wally has a passion for helping leaders let go of the old and embrace new thinking to improve leadership skills, employee engagement, and performance.  See other resources here.


Damasio, A. R. (2005). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Penguin Publishing Group.

Daniel Goleman, R. B. (2002). Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.

For more, read on: https://c-suitenetwork.com/advisors/advisor/wally-hauck/

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