Do all Leaders need Empathy?

“Mark, do I really need to be empathetic as a leader?”

It’s a fair question and one I was expecting from this group. As participants attending one of our 4-module leadership programmes they had been assertively challenging, so this was very much true-to-form.

I replied: “I’ll answer that question with a question, if I may?”

“Do you, as senior leaders, consider yourselves to be political animals?”

“Yes”, “Sure”, “Of course!” they were in unilateral agreement.

“OK, good, I was expecting you to say that” I replied. “How would I recognise that political activity through your behaviour, day-to-day?”

A short pause…

“Well, I don’t know about the others…but I’m always thinking one step ahead of everyone else!”

An explosion of laughter, which helped to break the tension my question had caused them.

“OK, so we have a chess-player (he liked that analogy)…what about the rest of you?”

What followed was a somewhat modest, yet predictable list:

  • Aligning people to strategy by influencing them using data
  • Performance reviews were sighted as ‘a great opportunity’
  • Being very blunt “telling them straight”
  • Taking a more democratic approach
  • Coaching, again mainly referencing data/facts
  • If all else fails – coercion

They were a group of individuals motivated by order and fairness, of logic and facts. The company had recruited senior leaders who were in all aspects clones of the board. The company culture was firmly there; as a leadership team they thought and acted alike. This gave them collective security.

In this they were like so many organisations we work with.

Yet not everyone at this organisation was motivated like them. Head down any of the reporting lines and what do you find? People who ‘tick’ very differently to their leaders.

And here in lies the classic leadership conundrum. How to lead effectively – engaging your people’s hearts and minds alike.

I answered their original question:

Many years ago when I first entered the world of work, my mother gave me some solid advice to help me in my career. She said, “if you treat everyone the way you like to be treated then you won’t go far wrong” well intentioned, yet 100% wrong. You see, people want to be treated the way THEY want to be treated, that may not be the way YOU want to be treated”.

As a leader myself, this has been one of the most significant leadership lessons I have gained and it influences my behaviour and communication choices every day.

So, yes the ability to empathise with people beyond your own motivation boundary is essential if you want to engage hearts and minds. If you want to be a true political leader.

And this one of the best examples of why their emotional intelligence (EQ) is as important for leaders as their IQ.

I looked around the room to a mixture of puzzlement and some intrigue. One person was smiling.

I posed them another question:

“If I could show you that in meetings you could be gathering vitally important data (note my specific use of the word ‘data’) which would help you build greater rapport with colleagues and help to influence them to your way of thinking (again, my specific choice of the word ‘thinking’) would that be useful?”

They all agreed! To put a juicy cherry on the icing – I offered them some more benefits.

Using this heightened way of listening to your people you can:

  • Engage both hearts and minds
  • Understand where the power is in the meeting
  • Understand who is supporting whom – and why
  • Who is disengaged (often shown non-verbally)
  • Who is just coasting
  • Where can you sense resistance (often shown non-verbally)

What followed was a fascinating journey, exploring their own authentic empathy and developing their Emotional Intelligence (EQ).

Corporate Drama specialises in Leadership development, either in 1-2-1 coaching sessions or small groups.

Our programmes are always bespoke and focus on practical application of theory and best practice. We develop, aware and confident, authentic leaders using our dramatically different methodology.

Give the team a call on 0208 088 2600 today.

12 Big Leadership Secrets

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