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Leading with Empathy – Changing the Way You Show Up as a Leader

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We are in a time of deep change – a kind of change that requires not just incremental shifts, but deep transformation where we don’t know what the end state is going to look like, both collectively, and also for each of us individually.

The ever-changing state of the world is changing the way that we need to show up as leaders and highlighting the importance of leading as whole humans with empathy and compassion for one another.

Leaders who practice empathy are leaders that teams are eager to support. Empathetic leaders build teams that are willing and able to pivot, teams that want to learn and grow, not just professionally but personally, and teams that stand together during times of crisis.

What it really means to be an empathic leader

Right now, more than ever, leading with empathy is essential. 

The simplest way to do that is to genuinely listen. 

Our only job right now, and during any time of change or difficulty, is to listen, understand, and pivot appropriately. 

Every single leader, during times like COVID, a shift in power, times of political upheaval, questions how they should respond or what they should say… but sometimes all you need to do is listen.

The paradox of this is that we think leaders have to say something and are going to send people in a certain direction, that they’re decisive, and that they’re leading everyone forward. But a lot of the time leadership is listening.

Choosing to listen is a decision. Your decision as a leader can be to listen. To say you’re choosing to listen is the decision. 

As a leader, it is still your job to communicate a decision. Informing your team that you’ve made that decision to listen instead of speak makes your team feel a little bit more stable in an unstable environment. 

You can choose to lead from the front or to lead from the back.  It’s still leadership to lead from the back. Support is leadership. The front is your employee community that needs to be heard. You don’t need to be at the front with the perfect thing to say. 

Leading with empathy means being there for your team. Your job is to empower your team. Your job is to help remove obstacles for your team. Your job is to give credit to the team. Not just your team, but everybody who helps achieve an objective.

The result of empathetic leadership is having employees or teammates that say “I find myself working harder because you understand me. I find myself wanting to succeed because I like you.” 

The Beautiful Challenge of Being an Empathetic Leader

The word empathy in and of itself means that you can feel how other people feel. That means you feel the joy and the pain of others.  

The more and more people you get when you scale your organization, the more people’s pain you feel, and the more people’s joy you feel. There are a lot of people in pain right now and when you lead with empathy that can be really hard. 

So often we mistake empathy and compassion with either softness or self-blame, and neither one of those two is leadership. 

Leadership is discovering all of the different ways that you can create impact. What can you be responsible for?  You own your impact. That’s conscious leadership.

If you really want to feel, you’re going to feel. Some days, that’s hard. And some days, it’s the best. It’s the best when you can feel a thousand people’s victories. 

The middle of the road is the easy road. You don’t get the highs if you don’t get the lows. Because if you don’t care about their pain, you don’t care about their joy either.

As with anything in leadership, it’s all about choice. You get to choose how you want to lead.

Empathy unlocks a new level of leadership that impacts you internally and those around you. 

Photography by Kelley Raye //

Dr. Caneel Joyce is a CEO Coach and social scientist who helps people break out of the invisible traps and make whole-life changes easily and naturally.

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