Does empathy always make better leaders?

Most people would agree that empathy is a good thing in general, but how important is empathy for a leader? There’s a fair bit on LinkedIn and elsewhere now about how leaders need to be empathetic. While I agree, I believe there’s more to it, and that it’s risky to oversimplify the role of empathy in leadership.        

It’s natural to feel that leaders should be empathetic; we like and respect people who are empathetic, and we want to like and respect our leaders. However, when you think about the range of situations leaders have to deal with, it gets more complicated, and I worry that seeing empathy as a virtue in itself could be counterproductive if we don’t understand this complexity.             

For me, the importance of empathy in leadership depends on three factors: the specific dynamics of the leadership situation, who the stakeholders are, and how the leader adapts their leadership style to fit. Different situations and stakeholders call for different approaches.

I prefer leaders with enough natural empathy to be regarded as basically decent people who can stay out of jail. Beyond that, I believe it’s more important they have this ability to adapt to different situations and stakeholders.

Most important, a leader should be honest, transparent, true to themselves and respectful of everyone impacted by their leadership. It’s not just about turning on the empathy when the situation calls for it, because that’s not honest, people will see through it, and nothing erodes trust in a leader like people feeling they’re not sincere.

I’m going to talk about three examples which I hope will illustrate this complexity. They draw on examples from politics, not because I want to make any political points, but because I believe politics often gives us the best illustrations of how the role of empathy in leadership can be complicated.  

The War Leader

When you lead people in a common cause they feel strongly about, it’s that cause which binds you together more than general empathy. I’ll call this the war leader model, although it doesn’t need to involve an actual war; defeating Apartheid, establishing the US Civil Rights act, taking the UK out of the EU, making America great again, all fit this model.

A war leader doesn’t need empathy as we normally think of it because that powerful shared cause provides a ready-made empathy substitute. You can sustain your leadership as long as you keep people passionate about the cause and you never do anything they see as betraying it. You don’t need to meet them one to one, you don’t need town hall meetings or to kiss any babies, you just need a podium and maybe these days a Twitter account to keep the fires stoked.

Clearly Donald Trump operates mainly as a war leader whereas Joe Biden majors on empathetic leadership in the traditional sense. The fact that both polled over 70 million votes in the 2020 election shows that war leadership can still get people behind you.

War leadership in politics often gets negative press because the war mentality encourages partisanship, tribalism and the kind of division that easily spills over into criminality and violence.

But war leadership isn’t always negative or about big causes, it fits well in areas like business disruption and innovation. An innovator can effectively lead a bunch of people who simply believe as much as them in the innovation, they don’t need much empathy with them beyond that shared vision. Some of the greatest technological transformations of recent years have been led by people we cheerfully think of as nerds, a stereotype not generally noted for strong empathy.

It’s critical to understand the limits of a war leadership approach and avoid applying it too widely. In a highly competitive business environment, it’s all too easy to slip into a permanent war leadership mindset, eroding empathy and undermining trust. I always saw it as a warning sign in an organisation if their management meetings and communications were peppered with the language of warfare.        

The Adaptive Leader

Knowing when to adopt a war leadership style and when not to is part of an adaptive leadership style.

There’s plenty of good stuff out there about situational leadership and the value of adapting your leadership style to the needs of the situation. That includes the way you show empathy. It doesn’t mean artificially turning empathy on or off, it’s about knowing when empathy needs to come to the fore as part of your leadership approach.

For me, Nelson Mandela’s journey from freedom fighter to statesman is a great example of adaptive leadership. As long as Apartheid survived, he was a great war leader. Once it was defeated, he made the staggeringly difficult transition to a leadership approach driven by empathy and reconciliation. The hardest thing for any war leader is dealing with the peace, moving on from the enmities which drove you in war. For me, Mandela showed us all how it should be done.

In business, mergers, acquisitions and major outsourcing contracts can often benefit from a bit of adaptive leadership. While it would be nice if all commercial negotiations were carried out on a basis of complete mutual trust and empathy, it’s hard to avoid some adversarial elements creeping in. One downside of empathy is that it can make it easier to take these adversarial elements personally, and that can impact on building a strong working relationship after the contract is signed.  It might be going a bit far to suggest leaving your empathy at the negotiating room door, but it’s certainly worth bearing in mind.   

The ‘Act empathetic and hope you get away with it’ leader

You can’t fake empathy. If you try, people laugh at you or worse, they feel patronised and hurt.    

Writers have milked the cringeworthy qualities of fake empathy in characters from Malvolio in ‘Twelfth Night’ to David Brent in ‘The Office’.  Any photo-op of a government minister pulling pints in a pub or joining in a school kickabout tends to draw media ridicule in proportion to how ‘posh’ that minister is perceived as being. A white privileged male telling a victim of prejudice they understand how they feel is an example of fake empathy at its most corrosive.

Yet it’s tempting for a leader to fall into the fake empathy trap because the barriers to creating genuine empathy are so daunting.  

A lot of the qualities that tend to get you chosen as a leader don’t necessarily sit comfortably with empathy – strength of purpose, goal focus, analytical acumen and the rest. Some even say that the narcissists make the most effective leaders, yet narcissism is the polar opposite of empathy.   

And, sadly, we still mostly grow our leaders from privileged social groups, meaning there is often little common experience and understanding from which to build empathy.

Just telling leaders to be more empathetic runs the risk of creating more fake empathy and fuel for yet more TV sitcoms.  

That’s why I believe it matters more for a leader to be honest, transparent, true to themselves and respectful of everyone impacted by their leadership. With these qualities, you don’t need to be the most naturally empathetic person in the world, and you don’t need a mass of shared experience with the people you lead. The behaviours these qualities drive will foster a fundamental empathy with most people and for the rest, you may just have to play the ‘I don’t need you to like me, I’m the boss’ card.  

I’m not so naïve as to think that’s all there is to it. It’s easy to watch Barack Obama coolly netting a 3-pointer on a college basketball court, compare it with Boris Johnson tripping up a schoolkid in a playground kickabout, and make obvious observations about the contrast in empathy. In reality, it’s a fair bet that Boris Johnson’s apparent fake empathy efforts are carefully choreographed and planned to play to his agenda and that the ridicule they attract is an acceptable cost.

If you want to get clever about using fake empathy as part of a subtle and complex leadership strategy, good luck, but for the average team leader or manager I suggest the honest and transparent approach is a safer place to start.

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