The Power of Leading with Empathy

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Empathy requires skill. It is manifested in action. SurePeople Founder and CEO Niko Drakoulis reflects on the power of empathetic leadership and shares three essential skills for leading teams through challenging times.

It’s been said that these days CEO stands for Chief Empathy Officer. We see this now more than ever during our present crisis. People are hurting and in need, and many companies are struggling. If ever there was a time for leaders to step up and care for their people, it’s now.

Yet, being empathetic is more than just wanting to be nice. Hoping to do right by your people isn’t enough. And you know what they say about the road paved with good intentions. Empathy requires skill. It is manifested in action. There are concrete ways one can show empathy and ways one can improve it. 

The thing about a crisis is that it reveals a lot about who we are. And who we are in a crisis is determined by who we’ve been learning to be during times of peace and stability. Though what we’re facing in society right now is in many ways unprecedented, challenges and difficulties in business are not new. How we’ve worked through and grown from the challenges we’ve faced can serve us in times such as this.

Skill #1: Master Active Listening

Early on in my career, I thought I knew what it meant to be an empathetic leader. I didn’t realize that empathy also meant striving to understand where others were coming from, to see things from their perspective, to grasp more about what made them tick and what inspired and motivated them. I would try to listen, but with the intent of responding and validating my point of view. I’m a big picture guy, and I avoided getting into the details of really seeing where the other person was coming from. 

One of the many lessons I drew from these early experiences is how important it is to understand and connect meaningfully with your people. Leading others means being present with them, drawing them out through active listening with an intent to understand and question asking, being slow to judge them or their situations, and learning their personality, fundamental drivers, motivations and communication styles, among other things. 

Sound like a lot? Well, it is. It takes work. This is part of the crucial work of leadership. This is not a side interest. It’s central to what it means for you to lead others. And, of course, there are strategies and tools to make this critical work easier. 

Skill #2: Engage in Radically Transparent Conversations with Stakeholders

One of the reasons I was so thrilled to launch SurePeople is because I truly needed the tools and insights we were offering to others. I experienced the power of Prism psychometrics and platforms that drove feedback and engagement. In minutes they revealed insights about myself that had taken me years to understand. I saw them do the same for others. I knew we needed to share these powerful tools with the world. 

Earlier in our history, SurePeople went through a difficult period of restructuring. Anyone who has launched a start-up knows how hard things can be. Stress and pressure are the norm. And sometimes you have to pivot and adjust. 

We faced some financial challenges that caused a lot of stress for us as a team. I used lessons from my past experience to strive to be an empathetic leader through this period. Rather than simply trying to motivate or ensure the team, I took concrete steps to show empathy. I brought us together for radically transparent conversations. We aired our fears and concerns. We worked hard to really listen to and understand one another. We chose to be open and truthful with all our stakeholders about our challenges. 

I saw how the empathy we extended created an empathetic cycle. Everyone connected to us—whether our employees, partners or clients—showed empathy in return. Our people graciously took pay cuts; partners extended payment plans; clients paid their bills early without us asking. We made it through, stronger, leaner, more resourceful, and more committed than ever to our mission.

I learned that empathy comes back to you. Obviously, this isn’t the reason to be empathetic. Do it because it’s the right thing to do. But know that it often means a beautiful return on that emotional investment. 

Skill #3: Put Your People First, Manage the Crisis Second

Right now, there are plenty of issues to be concerned about. Your people may be struggling. Your organization may be in hard times. Now, more than ever, is a time to be empathetic. But empathy is more than a good intention. It requires skill and action. And you can grow and improve in how you show empathy. 

I can’t convince you to be empathetic. That desire needs to be in you. But if it is, start moving from well-meaning feelings to action and impact. One concrete step that you can take right now is leading a series of Care Calls with your team.

We at SurePeople have the privilege of working with clients such as Johns Hopkins Medicine, Boston Children’s Hospital and Comcast, and I can tell you that just about every leader of the highest-performing teams is utilizing a variation of Care Calls to put their people first.

To start on your journey of becoming a more empathetic leader, I invite you to read Bill O’Brien’s excellent article: How to Build Team Psychological Safety with Care Calls.   

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