Leadership lessons: Where’s your empathy?

Welcome to the latest entry in my long running leadership lessons series.

In these posts, I break down the most valuable skills, traits, behaviours and more that leaders need to succeed.

Tap into your emotions

The pandemic has been an eye opener for many reasons and on many levels. One of those that has had my attention for sometime is what we “in the industry” would call leadership capability.

I must have read nearly a dozen of the same articles every month for the last few years by now. All spotlighting the non-existence of many of the basic skills leaders and managers need to succeed.

(FYI – I will interchange the words managers and leaders here often. Basically the same thing in my eyes, everyone who has responsibility for other humans should be a leader. Manager sounds so cold).

It looks like (to me anyway) that the pandemic exposed just how many of the people we ordain with the title manager or leaders, don’t have the skills to operate in that role.

Yes, these people are fellow humans too and the pandemic has been a rough ride (understatement of the century) but this is not a fault of the current situation, rather this situation just showcased how poor the capability is of a lot of people in these positions.

And that’s concerning, right?

When those that we elevate to positions of not only broader business responsibility but also human responsibility, lack the essential skills to do the right things, it’s a worry.

You’re probably wondering, well, what skills were missing?

The biggest from what I’ve seen, read and heard across industries over the past 2 years quite clearly comes through as emotional intelligence and awareness.

Now, I know the term emotional intelligence can be quite buzzwordy at times and seem like a somewhat mystic art that has been popularised in leadership development programmes the world over in the last decade.

Branding aside, it’s essential to be more emotionally tuned in when you’re responsible (or at least part responsible) for the welfare and wellbeing of fellow humans.

You may not see it on the surface but possessing strong emotional intelligence and awareness is the core of strength in many key leadership skills including everyday conversations, feedback, decision making and many more.

We’re all human and that means we all have emotions (although I know a fair few which will deny this).

It’s becoming clearer to me that the core of a good leader lies within their emotional intelligence. I mean, how else can you do all of the other tasks required of a leader if you don’t have strong emotional intelligence?

And, this is not just having the EI to support others. You need to have it to manage yourself too (yes, managers need to manage themselves!). You’ll be not only a better manager but a better human if you can understand your emotional triggers and how to support your own emotional health.

Leaders need to be better humans, caring and have high EQ.

At the core of this is something so simple and so obvious that many leadership development experiences never talk about it.


That’s right, at the core of any good leader should be empathy.

This was the case before the pandemic but even more so post-pandemic.

I read this insightful article from HBR called ‘What does it mean to be a manager today?’ which broke down findings from their recent survey on the state of skills in the people manager role today.

It’s an interesting read but also long so let me share some of the points that stood out for me most and why.

“Managers used to be selected and promoted largely based on their ability to manage and evaluate the performance of employees who could carry out a particular set of tasks. 

Within the last five years, HR executives started to hire and develop managers who were poised to be great coaches and teachers. But the assumption that coaching should be the primary function of management has been tested since the pandemic began.”

So, a couple of things to note here:

  1. No mention of emotional intelligence or empathy in sight as part of the criteria for managers historically.
  2. Coaching is not the saviour that the industry makes it out to be. Yes, it’s a great tool but a tool it remains in a wider kit. Not a silver bullet that will solve all.

The problem with coaching in a pandemic is quite simply that you can’t coach people through a pandemic.

HBR identified 3 trends that have challenged the traditional role of a manager in normalisation of remote work, adoption of more tech to engage with team members and shifted expectations of employees.

If you want to cover those in detail, check out the article but in summary these 3 trends have shifted what some managers might presume is their power and ability to be effective.

What was the solution?

Well, no surprise, it’s what we’ve been talking about already – empathy.

The constant need for adaptability requires people who can put empathy at the core of what they do and thus expand their emotional intelligence and awareness capabilities to not only do the right thing, but ensure the wellbeing of people are at the heart of those decisions.

Yet, the problem, and there’s always a problem right? Is that a lot of people in leadership positions don’t have these skills and might never have them. As the role of a manager evolves, it means that the assessment criteria for who should be promoted needs to change too.

And you know where I’m going with this don’t you?

Emotional intelligence, awareness and empathy need to be at the core of those skills.

In my humble opinion, I don’t see how you can be good at communicating, collaborating, making decisions and all the rest without this.

So, yes, for me, the best people leaders/managers are the most emotionally intelligent ones. They understand that emotions matter and basically influence anything and everything we do.

Yet, we see the challenge to improve this in the data that HBR collected ⬇️

“According to our 2021 survey of 4,787 global employees, 75% of HR leaders from midsize companies agree that managers’ roles have expanded, yet roles and teams are not structured to support well-being.”

There you have it. However, EI skills go beyond wellbeing – yes it’s part of it but it seeps into everything else we do.

If you want to build better managers, teach them about emotional intelligence, awareness and the importance of empathy. Bring this into the promotion process too. Don’t assess just technical ability, assess emotional ability too.

The role of someone who is responsible for fellow humans is incredibly important. So, don’t compromise and make sure your people leaders have empathy at their core.

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