Empathy: The Critical Leadership Skill for an ESG-driven world

Geraldine Gallacher looks at the different skills required to become a fully inclusive leader

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the integration of environmental, social, and governance concerns into how organisations want to do business as we emerge from our year of lockdown.

With investors, governments and consumers clamouring for action, it has become an urgent issue for every leader who wants to secure the future for their organisation.

This begs an important question: if we want to see a change in how organisations do business, do we need a change in the way organisations are led?

If we accept that successfully navigating this ESG-driven world will require people who come from different backgrounds and think differently from those who move up the traditional leadership track, then it is clear then some sort of shift is needed towards a leadership style that embraces difference, champions diversity and empowers individuals.

This means finally saying goodbye to the muscular, heroic leadership style, which is still so conspicuous in certain sectors and professions.

How leadership is changing to keep pace

In fairness, many organisations have moved on from the idea that leaders need to be “Great Men” or figures of control, authority, inspiration, agency and action.

The interconnected, networked systems, which are a feature of organisations today where power and responsibility are distributed and people self-organise, require “Systems Leadership” where leaders perform a supportive role to what is often described as being closer to a ‘living organism’ than an organisation built on hierarchy.

Networked systems require all workers to display leadership. So, as organisations have come to rely on smaller, dynamic teams with greater autonomy and more decision-making power to be effective, the role of the traditional directive leader has become obsolete. The leader has effectively become a steward and enabler whose role is to ensure everyone at every level contributes to the organisation’s success.

Over the last 25 years, I have spent thousands of hours coaching leaders and executives in some of the world’s most influential and best-known organisations.

The shift in my client’s landscape during that time has been dramatic. So too has the evolution of leadership, which has moved from being ‘leader centric’ to a focus on enabling others.

At the core of this change in leadership is the ‘heart’; what I have observed in those leaders and executives that are transformational is that they develop and demonstrate empathy.

This isn’t about being kind and altruistic, although that’s part of it – it’s about understanding others’ perspectives to broaden yours. It’s very pragmatic.


The role of empathy

Consider first the fundamental role of empathy and compassion in coaching.

These values are the very basis of any productive coaching relationship. Why? Because by showing our clients empathy, withholding judgement, listening, being curious and having deep unconditional regard for them allows for several key developments.

This approach naturally builds trust as it facilitates an open exchange and enables the client to let go of unhealthy or unproductive defences which inhibit their growth. Empathy signals to our clients that they have unlimited potential; this is a trustworthy relationship and reminds them that they have a vast capacity to understand themselves and resolve their issues(Hedman, 1999).

Our focus as coaches is to facilitate the self-determination of the client so that they move towards more optimal functioning (Martin Seligman & Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Of course, it is not just about empathy, but it is where the safety, growth and empowerment will begin. 

In the leaders I work with, I typically see three levels of the understanding and practice of empathy.

Level 1 – Getting in tune with customers and stakeholders 

Many executives now understand (particularly those leading product development, strategic marketing and human resources) that empathy gives the ability to ‘see’ those post-digital vocal customers and employees that demand to be understood.

Whether it is to develop solutions that meet the customer’s needs or understand the impact of the organisation’s stance on social issues on customer and employee choices, empathy is critical.

For customers, long gone are the one-way relationships characterised by push mass marketing and outbound communications. If you can’t understand your customers, if you can’t get their perspective, then you can’t anticipate what they want or how they may behave. You simply are not on their wavelength.

We also know that grasping the perspective of and adjusting to the so-called ‘values-based’ employees, who align themselves with brands that share their values, allows companies to inspire a differentiating loyalty with longevity (2020, Edelman’s Trust Barometer). 

Level 2 – Feeling to motivate change

Allowing leaders to work with difference and showing them how to take the perspectives of others and ‘walk in their shoes’ helps build empathy and, in turn, motivate change (Epley, Caruso, Markman et al. 2009).

Consider the impact of the use of virtual reality by white leaders to experience an interview as a Black woman. Or how ‘reverse’ mentoring by employees from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds has resulted in their white mentees building empathy and wanting for those mentors what they want for themselves.

This kind of emotional engagement is essential because research shows us that this, rather than the rational arguments for the benefits for diversity and inclusion, moves us to action (Bariso, 2019).

Executives who employ perspective-taking combined with affective empathy are more likely to respond directly to another’s struggle and are motivated to change behaviours, and want to foster collaboration, inclusivity and belonging. 

Level 3 – Empathy-based leadership  

Those leaders that develop empathy as part of their leadership style reap the most benefits. Self-awareness is critical for any leader, but when combined with compassion and perspective-taking, it allows for a greater understanding of limitations and biases – insights essential in fostering a sense of inclusion.

A leader that goes on to approach more interactions as a coach and master the skills of active listening, suspending judgement and compassion is better able to develop a sense of empowerment and encourage openness in their teams. Imagine the power of a leader’s empathy and trust as it signals to the team members that they are accepted as they are now, that they belong and have unlimited potential to resolve their issues and find solutions.

I have seen how this approach encourages a greater sense of shared purpose, diversity of thought and how this broader perspective drives better solutions and collaboration.

This type of culture is a competitive advantage and is challenging for any company to replicate.

Can empathy in an executive be developed? 

The answer is not categorical, but increasingly evidence suggests that empathy can be learnt (Decety, 2011). Many empathy programmes have focused on health professionals, where improvements in positive patient outcomes have been linked to improved levels of empathy in the practitioner.

Here, programmes have approached empathy as a trainable skill. Thinking of it in this way rather than as a trait that we are born with and either possess or don’t has significant design implications for leadership development programmes going forward (Riess, 2017).

Whilst empathy is unlikely to be the silver bullet to diversity and inclusion problems, organisations are beginning to acknowledge that this traditionally ‘soft skill’ has a significant part to play in increasing positive impact.

Time to reshape leadership skills

As the very definition of what it means to be a leader evolves and advances as the wider context changes, it is becoming increasingly evident that certain traits, such as empathy, are becoming ever more central to sustaining an agile, diverse workplace. 

Once considered no more than a ‘nice-to-have’, empathy is clearly helping us connect with, engage, and motivate customers and the people that we lead and is situating itself as far more of an essential, foundational attribute than previously thought.

Those organisations who are making active efforts towards developing empathy in their leaders are clearly reaping the benefits in their performance – and crucially – in their bottom line.

Geraldine Gallacher is CEO of the Executive Coaching Consultancy www.executive-coaching.co.uk

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