Empathy-the roots of great leadership

In a previous post, we discussed the common features of good leadership output (the fruits and flowers). Following on from this, you might be inclined to wonder if all great leaders share a common source, trait or characteristic?  I believe they do, but you need to look underneath the obvious. You might even need to do some digging to find it, but every effective leader has it.

For me the most important invisible characteristic of a good leader is: the ability to experience the feelings of others. Psychologists call this empathy.

The hallmark of successful leadership wherever I have seen it, is a person's ability to put themselves in the shoes of everyone around them. Whether they be their superiors, subordinates, friends and even enemies. If you can master this skill, it can take you to some interesting places.

Entrepreneur Daniel Flynn shared his story with students at The National Young Leaders Day earlier this year including the moment when he put himself in the shoes of the people he now works on behalf of.

Notice in the story, that for Daniel, the process is not about rational thought. It was the use of his own emotions, transplanted into someone else’s life situation that caused him to act.  Not just imagining but feeling what it's like to live in extreme poverty has changed the course of Dan’s career and journey in life.

If leaders aspire to be great, they need to take the experience of others, especially those they want to lead, and connect it to something personal for their influence to achieve its maximum potential.

The hidden part of Dan’s empathy is that he doesn’t just apply it to abstract social situations overseas; he does it in his day-to-day interactions too.  If you talk to him, he listens intently.  You can see him looking for common ground, a place to relate to whomever he’s with.  I believe this is what makes him one of the most successful social entrepreneurs around today. 

Daniel’s ability to show empathy would have no doubt helped him as he went on to start up his very own social enterprise (Thankyou.) and mobalise a team that has now funded over 100 safe water projects in eight different countries, to assist over 56,000 people with safe water solutions.

If you recognise the above, then your own experience can become a rich resource for authentic influence on those around you. For example:

A winning sports captain who knows the sting of defeat will act appropriately at the end of a game.
A Senior who knows the fear and confusion of the first day at school will make a good peer support leader.
A teacher who has struggled academically to success will make a great tutor.

For all its value, empathy can be a hard thing to teach.  How have you learned it?  How have you been taught it?

Mike Martin is the Executive Director of the Halogen Foundation. Facinated by leaders for as long as he can remember, Mike's main interest lies in the many ways in which individuals use influence to shape the lives around them. 

Tweet @MikeAMartin or @halogenaus


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