Who would have thought that Empathic Leadership would be a thing? Certainly not me! When I first started developing and delivering training 20 years ago, I met inspiring, dedicated and motivated leaders. I also met leaders who were none of the above! These were promoted simply because of their length of service and not competency, they filled an awkward “Not quite sure what to do with them” box.

20 years on and the main difference is we have so many tools and resources available to us, many of them free (see Resources List at the end). Leaders that remain curious can learn their way into a place of competently and confidently fulfilling their jobs.

Organisations are starting to value Empathy as a leadership skill. I call it a skill as opposed to a quality as I believe it can be learnt. Even leaders who already have good levels of empathy can fine-tune it to reach their entire workforce.

Time and time again we see a lack of empathy in society, often driven by fear of exploring other ways of seeing the world, because the alternative seems confusing and threatening. For example, those that turned “Black Lives Matter” into “All Lives Matter”. The reframe can be viewed as spiritual gaslighting (“I discount your lived experience”) and toxic positivity (“Everything’s fine, fine, fine, because that’s more comfortable”) Is there any actual risk to you by being still and listening to other people’s experiences? And further, by offering support as an ally.


Cultivating Empathy

Image by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Empathy involves having a drive to understand others’ situations, experiences, feelings, thoughts, motives, and more. I have found that the practices I demonstrate in my job naturally promote my empathic skills. Including:


  1. Listen to hear, rather than listen to speak
  2. Don’t interrupt
  3. 80/20 rule of listening/talking
  4. Be present
  5. Use reflective enquiry
  6. Be curious


Notice how the majority are around actively listening to others. We all know this is important, but do you make it a regular practice? Remind yourself by putting this brilliant phrase on a post-it note:

“Don’t just do something, stand there!”


Three Types of Empathy

A range of researchers have come up with different types of empathy. My three favourite kinds are:

  1. Cognitive Empathy: imagine yourself into the person’s situation
  2. Emotive Empathy: sit beside them (metaphorically or physically) in their emotion
  3. Empathic Action: Sit in silence with their experience, and (paradoxically) don’t act!

Strive for a blend of all three. Because if we only remain in Cognitive Empathy we can slip into sympathy.


Sympathy & Empathy Distinctions

I enjoy using visual imagery to highlight the learning. Imagine a person at the bottom of a hole.

Sympathy is when you stand at the top and shout down, “Hey, I see you down there, that’s bad news for you.” It involves pity and sorrow.

Empathy is when you climb down and sit next to them. It involves a deeper understanding.

Research professor Dr. Brene Brown says Sympathy drives disconnection, and Empathy drives connection.


Trust & Empathy

Leaders who demonstrate empathy can instil loyalty and trust in their workforce.

Trust Researcher Rachel Botsman says that building trust in yourself involves taking risks, as it makes space for the belief that things can be better. She highlights that we need security and adventure in life. She asks, Can we take risks without trust, or is it the act of risk-taking that allows us to develop trust?

Rachel defines the two choices we have when faced with the unknown:

  1. Do we try to decrease the amount of perceived risk?
  2. Or do we work on increasing our tolerance for uncertainty?

Many of us will lend towards the second choice! But we do have choice. Therefore, take risks, and build trust by improving your levels of empathy.



So, what does Empathic Leadership mean to you? Are you willing to add it to your leadership toolkit? Do you trust that the outcome will be growing a committed workforce that feels valued and understood?

Resources List

Author:   Ali Hendry, L&D Advisor, Corporate Trainer and Coach