Why leaders need to master empathy


When you get into a discussion about leadership, empathy does not normally come high up on the elements for discussion. I think it should.

I do a lot of work with top executives around the globe and, as you know, I am a devotee of emotional intelligence. As part of my work, I assess emotional intelligence and empathy is a key element of EI.

While it would be doing a disservice to emotional intelligence to boil it down to one element, I would say that the really highly successful leaders - irrespective of industry, country, age or sex - all score highly on empathy.

I would go along with what Oprah Winfrey says: “Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.”

If you cannot connect with people to inspire them, then you are going to fall short as a leader.

But is empathy, (I hear some of the cynics cry!), not just one of those “touchy, feely, nice to have” things that business books talk about? Is it really necessary in the “real” world?

 I would say an emphatic “yes” to the need for empathy, and, as a leader, it is critical.

If you cannot see into the minds and hearts of your people, then you will not lead them.

Rhetoric will only take you so far, and for a short period of time. Long term leadership will only be sustained with true empathy.

But, what if being empathetic does not come natural to me? Is there no hope for me? I don’t believe that is the case.

Empathy is a skill that you can develop and grow - but it takes effort for those not naturally inclined.

For those executives that don’t turn up with an abundance of empathy, I suggest a very simple (not necessarily easy!) exercise and it goes like this:

When you are engaged in conversation concentrate on a) being fully present, and b) what is being said by others, and c) what emotion is being expressed, either verbally or non-verbally by those speaking.

 For many this can be a tough exercise. We are so used to not listening fully, thinking of what we are going to say next, and reflecting on how this affects us, that we miss everything that is happening in front of us.

And do the others notice? You bet your life they do! They are likely not to say it, but they do see it and it impacts upon their perception of you!

I will finish with a quote from Daniel Goleman, the world expert on EI, who said: “If your emotional intelligence abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self awareness……if you don’t have empathy…then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.”

So, yes, empathy is a key element of leadership, and without practising it, you will be lesser for it.


John Murphy has been running his own consultancy business, John Murphy International, for over 10 years.

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