I believe empathy is an underutilized skill in leadership. Successful leaders are often portrayed as authoritarians with an unbending will, but this is a weak leadership style to adopt. Ultimately, a true leader should focus on building trust, and an effective way to achieve this trust is through empathy.
In order to move from being a manager into being a coach, an individual has to master a new set of skills. These skills, if not naturally given, will take an incredible amount of discipline and understanding to obtain and will present new challenges. Because of my own past, one of the most challenging skills that I needed to learn was empathy.
When I was 20, I lost my sister and six friends unexpectedly, each with different and tragic circumstances. Five years later, I experienced another tragedy as I held my dad's hand during the final stages of his battle with terminal cancer, a battle which he, unfortunately, did not win.
When I had heard about people's challenges in life, whether these were tales of divorce, losing a deal or losing their job, these used to register with me as a 1 on my empathy scale out of 10. My initial thought was: You're intact, no one died, why are you upset? Just start over, it could always be so much worse. It was tough to understand their pain because even though they felt like they were at the bottom of the barrel (and indeed were facing challenging circumstances), I knew how much deeper their despair could go.
When someone would tell me about a life-shattering event and how they felt like they would never recover, my perspective was always from the bottom of that barrel, staring up. I can even envision it now, a black cylinder with a dimly lit circle at the top. Them, at the top, laying on a glass ceiling, writhing in pain not understanding how much deeper and worse the pain could get.
The problem is that this lack of empathy isn't a fair view to take, especially in management. A lot of the time what happens when you step into this new role is that you rely on the skills that got you there — but that is a trap.
From a top sales performer’s perspective, you learn to have that killer mentality. You learn that if you act with purpose, you will close deals. Will Smith said it best in his often-quoted treadmill analogy: “The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked, period."
When associates aren't closing deals and are complaining about it, you'll think to yourself: What's the problem? Just run faster.
This was the most challenging area for me when I first stepped into management. I wasn't empathizing with my associates. I had taken a hardline mentality that what they were doing wasn't difficult and that if they followed the outline we provided to them, they would achieve success. The problem was that I didn't understand what my job was.
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I thought that my goal was to get my associates to follow the exact outline that we knew would bring them success, but in reality, my role was to enable them to be successful by taking barriers out of their way and supporting them. I needed to learn to be more of a coach than a manager.
My job wasn't to tell them what they need to do, because they already knew. Part of my role was to be a sounding board, an in-office therapist and the person that they could come to who would build up their ego. Someone who could push them to their goals and put them in a position to succeed.
What happens when we don't empathize with associates? We end up tearing them down, discouraging them and pushing them away when all they need is some encouragement.
There are many skills that lead to becoming a great leader and empathy is one of them. Direct reports that trust you will run through walls for you, and if you can gain their trust and empathize with their challenges, you can build them into the best versions of themselves.