I recently finished the book “Leaders Eat Last” by Simon Sinek and it put into words everything that I was feeling about my experiences in the workplace. A lot of the book revolved around how people should be treated and how they respond when they are treated the right way. I learned that as humans we naturally gravitate towards collaboration and cooperation, but missteps of the last couple generations have led us astray. My biggest takeaway, the one that really resonates with my own personal beliefs, is that leadership is empathy.
As current or soon to be leaders, it is important that we understand the knowledge, skills, and traits that will help make us, our people and our organizations successful. It is important to learn from those around us, seek out alternative methods to learn and take responsibility for teaching others. In my experience, one of the best traits a leader can have is the ability to empathize with others. According to Oxford dictionary, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. To a leader, empathy is being able to see the forest for the trees.
When you empathize with a person they feel understood, they feel camaraderie and they feel valued. People who feel this way will work in earnest for the good of their organization. Their positive feelings transcend into their interactions with customers or stakeholders and their desire to give their best effort. Empathic leaders are able to build and maintain relationships, which feeds into our natural desire to cooperate and work collaboratively. Opening the door for honest communication, empathy also leads to constructive teamwork and problem-solving.
The first year of my oldest son’s life required more time off work than I had ever needed previously. He had quite a few illnesses, a couple ER visits, and a hospital stay. When I took the time off my superiors appeared to be quite understanding and let me know to take care of home as needed. However, when it came time for my annual review my ‘excessive absences’ were thrown back at me as a negative performance marker. Receiving that feedback did not make me want to work harder for my employer, it made me feel misunderstood and isolated. It did not make me feel like a valued member of the team. I felt like I had to watch my back.
Many businesses leaders overlook the importance of their people. We are taught to focus on spreadsheets, numbers, and outcomes. While those things have their place, they do not tell a complete story and you need the complete story in order to make the right decisions. Are your people happy? Do they have personal struggles that are inhibiting their ability to succeed professionally? Do they feel like a part of the team? The questions you ask about your team, your ability to empathize with them in addition to understanding the spreadsheets, numbers, and outcomes will give you all the information needed to make solid, long-term, visionary decisions.
In the half year since my second son’s arrival, I have had more childcare challenges than I anticipated. I have needed to get to the office late, leave the office early, or drag a child with me into the office. My current boss consistently shows empathy towards me, and all my coworkers, when these inevitable life events happen. I have never been required to ask for permission to take care of my family. These situations have never been discussed with me as a negative performance marker. As a result, I feel a loyalty and responsibility to give my best to my boss and my team.
People want leaders who are inspiring, brave, and honest. They want to know that they are following individuals that genuinely care and have unwavering integrity. As leaders, we have a high moral obligation to leave the world a better place than we found it. In order to do that successfully, we must be able to empathize with those we lead, those we serve and those to whom we are responsible.
Yolanda Jenkins is a wife, mother of 2, and an introverted leader. She can sometimes be found sharing the good, the bad and the ugly on IG @thislibralife.