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Empathy -The Secret Ingredient For Leadership Excellence


John Knights

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In 2001, leadership guru Jim Collins in his best seller “Good to Great” stated that “Intense Will” and “Humility” were the two most important characteristics of leadership for the 21st century. In the same year, Daniel Goleman in his seminal book, “The New Leaders”, demonstrated the connection between leadership and emotional intelligence (EI) based on the research done by co-writers Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee. It established that Empathy was a key ingredient of competence in all leadership styles; that the “soft” skills of Humility and Empathy were vital for good organisational leadership was a new concept.

Goleman et al stated “Leaders with empathy are able to attune to a wide range of emotional signals, letting them sense the felt, but unspoken, emotions in a person or group. Such leaders listen attentively and can grasp the other person’s perspective. Empathy makes a leader able to get along well with people of diverse backgrounds or from other cultures”.

But what is Empathy? Goleman defines it as “Sensing others’ emotions, understanding their perspective, and taking an active interest in their concerns”.

It is important not to confuse empathy with sympathy, which is described in the Oxford Dictionary as “sharing another person’s emotions; to have compassion for”. Empathy is not about agreeing or sharing emotions, it is about understanding.

At LeaderShape we use a unique Leadership and Emotional Intelligence Profile Assessment tool (LEIPA*) to assess chief executives, senior teams and middle managers. This process measures EI competencies, converts them to a performance measurement of various leadership styles and then relates the importance of the different leadership styles in the context of the executive’s current role.

Our experience and data clearly demonstrate that Empathy is the EI capability most often in need of improvement for executives to become excellent leaders. But how do leaders actually develop empathy? The approach used at LeaderShape as in developing any other EI Competency is to granularise the issue. Then, often through coaching, we help the individual to identify precisely how they can improve very specific behaviours and establish and implement an action plan.

We test Empathy using four key behavioural statements:

  1. I listen attentively to what people say:
    I really focus on what is being said with a view to understand. I am not thinking about how I am going to answer or being distracted by anything else.
  2. I demonstrate an awareness of how others are feeling:
    As a result of my open questions and / or careful, focused listening and observations of non-verbal communication, I can really sense how the person is feeling and I then communicate with that person to show I am aware of those feelings.
  3. I accurately identify the underlying causes of the other person's perspective:
    I ask open questions and listen carefully in order to understand why the other person is thinking the way they are and therefore understand the cause and reason for their perspective.
  4. I express an understanding of the other person’s perspective:
    Having understood the cause and reasons for the other person’s point of view, I explain my understanding of that perspective to both check the accuracy of my understanding and also so that the other person knows I understand where they are coming from and can empathise with them.

How frequently would these statements be true for you?
Never, occasionally, sometimes, usually or always?

How do you measure up? If you cannot honestly say that you “usually” demonstrate these four behaviours it is almost certain that developing your empathy to a higher level of competence will make you a better leader.

If you would like to comment on this article, please contact John Knights at LeaderShape on +44 (0)870 990 5576.

About the Author

John Knights a Co-founder and Chairman of LeaderShape Ltd. “My purpose in business is to help leaders develop leadership excellence.” He is an experienced Coach, Mentor and Facilitator of individuals (especially CEOs and Senior Managers), teams and peer groups. His business experience encompasses a broad range of senior management responsibilities in international corporate environments in the U.S.A., Europe, U.K. and Asia. To boost your leadership skills and understanding, please call: +44 (0)870 990 5576 or visit

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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2009-10-09 11:54:20 in Personal Articles

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