Empathy Defined and Why it is Important in a Leader (2nd in a Series)

(This post is part of a series on the five fundamental traits and capacities a leader with great strategic responsibility must have, derived in part from a remarkable document, the Army Field Manual on Leader Development. Read an introduction to the series here.  The first three posts in the series address empathy.  This post defines empathy and tries to answer the question, why does a leader need this capacity?)

Empathy might not be the first trait that comes to most peoples’ minds when they think about a military leader, but the Army Manual is very serious about it being an essential requirement for leadership. And it’s an equally crucial capacity in business or organizational leaders who are responsible for the fates of enterprises and the people whose lives are effected by them.

Empathy defined

Empathy is the ability to notice,  understand and connect emotionally with another person’s (or group’s) perspective and experience.  Empathy is essentially neutral—it can be used for all sorts of purposes, not all of them necessarily virtuous.  So I’ll add the capacity to care about the other person’s experience as a crucial dimension for leaders.  It’s not enough to understand another person’s perspective or experience, it has to matter to you and effect your actions.  This latter dimension involves compassion.

Why does a leader need the capacity for empathy?

Human beings are not rational actors. Our thinking, decision making and actions  are strongly motivated and driven by emotions, not just facts and rational thought.  Often these emotions are unconscious, and only become clear with introspection or via indirect means. You need empathy if you have any hope of understanding what is motivating the behavior and decisions of your employees, your counterparts in a negotiation, even your opponents.  Empathy enables you to anticipate how others will act and to predict what decisions they might make.

The decisions of leaders at the highest level are impactful—that’s the whole point.  But impact means that there will be broad and deep consequences to your decisions, including emotional impact for the people effected by them.  Without empathy, you cannot  predict or understand the impact of your actions on others and you are vulnerable to being blindsided by unexpected consequences.  Leaders necessarily have a strong sense of self, but  that very strength may limit their ability to sense the needs and perceptions of others.

Empathy is an essential capacity for all the following leadership functions:

  • Diagnosing and overcoming stalemates
  • Building team strength and functionality
  • Fostering the development of internal leaders
  • Negotiations
  • Crisis and conflict management
  • Communications

Diagnosing and Overcoming Stalemates

Empathy is necessary to diagnose the underpinnings of chronic company obstacles, conflicts and stalemates.  These inevitable situations are nearly always a sign that there are emotional or irrational forces at work beneath the surface such as unrecognized conflicts, divisions, fear of change, rage, competitiveness, or demoralization.  Only the effective deployment of empathy will allow a leader to dig down to uncover the forces at work in an impasse or chronically “unsolvable” problem.

 Building Team Strength and Functionality

Not surprisingly, this is a core focus of the Army Manual.  Military success is entirely dependent on highly functioning teams.   Empathy is a fundamental underpinning to the development of trust, without which teams cannot function.

Specifically, empathy is a key component of team development because it is foundational to these abilities:

  • Creating a shared understanding—a prerequisite for a high functioning team with a unified purpose
  • Noticing and acting quickly when schisms develop or morale drops
  • Understanding when your team is overloaded or confused and adjusting your approach accordingly
  • Understanding and acting on team members’ need for recognition and reward
  • Knowing how are they  going to respond to a challenge, not how you would respond

 Developing Internal Leaders

Without empathy, a leader cannot function effectively as a mentor and develop leadership capacity in others. You need empathy  to accurately assess subordinates’ strengths and vulnerabilities. Without it, you can’t  know what it takes for each person to function at their best.

 Crisis and Conflict Management

In conflictual situations, notably claims of unfairness, discrimination, or harassment, you can’t navigate the dirty waters if you can’t empathize with the complainants.  Only the empathic leader is sensitive to individual and cultural variations in peoples’ response to problems, stress and challenges.

A Forbes Agency Council post offered 13 Golden Rules of PR Crisis Management, based on expert opinion from media strategy leaders.  Kim Miller, of Ink Link Marketing, didn’t name empathy explicitly, but she perfectly captured it in action:   “Step back, put yourself in the consumers’ shoes and ask, ‘How would I feel if this happened to me?’ Looking in the mirror is the best PR advice there is when dealing with crisis situations. It ensures we do the right thing. And right beats spin every time.”  I liked another tip in the Forbes piece:  Nicole Rodrigues, of NRPR Group, advised, “Remember to be human.”

Kim Miller’s succinct comment captures several important points—you can practice empathy employing self-reflection.  And it points you towards doing the right thing.  Empathy facilitates your capacity to do what is right despite adversity or prolonged stress.


Empathy is what allows you to accurately read your counterpart in negotiations.  Their priorities, motivation and sensibilities are not the same as yours.  You need to know what’s most important to them.  What’s going to offend or alienate them?  Everyone knows dollars matter.  But where exactly do honor, pride, values, ambition and history enter into their negotiating position?

Communicating Clearly and Effectively

Effective communication is dependent on empathy. A person who is deficient in empathy cannot accurately understand verbal and non-verbal cues. This is the capacity that allows you to connect with your audience, and to notice when your message is not getting across and change courses.  It gives you the ability to recognize and address misunderstandings and track listener interest.


Related posts:

Introduction to Leadership Series–What Kind of Human Being do You Need at the Top

The Business Costs of Lack of Empathy

Can You Learn to be Empathic?



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