• Jan 05 2023

How to Use Empathetic Leadership as a Superpower

By Julia Alexander, Chief Product Officer and Co-Founder, ExecOnline

We’re living in challenging times, without a doubt. Pervasive issues seem to keep rolling in – first the pandemic, racial injustice, social unrest, then economic volatility – all fueling the chaos of juggling home and work life under continuously changing circumstances. Unsurprisingly, feelings of overwhelm and burnout are becoming commonplace, especially for women who have taken on even greater responsibilities in the midst of the turmoil.

Our research has given us the numbers behind some of the stress. In the wake of the pandemic and the fallout on the workforce, an unprecedented number of leaders are finding themselves in new positions, many in leadership roles for the first time. In a survey of more than 10,000 leaders, only 7% have the right combination of strategic prioritization and talent engagement skills needed to effectively lead right now. The gaps in leadership preparedness are having an additional impact – leader burnout. Further studies revealed over 80% of leaders are concerned about burnout.

At the height of the pandemic, we saw the impact on women through our online leadership development enrollment rates. There was a significant drop, as women shouldered the majority of the responsibilities for their families and their school-age children. Now that children are back in school and the impact of the pandemic is subsiding, enrollment is back up. However, the need for effective leadership remains.

We’ve all seen examples of leadership gone awry. While there may be some immediate gains from intimidation, the results are short-lived. The damage from this approach can extend for years and even mean the end of a once-viable organization.

Empathetic leadership isn’t about settling for less – it’s about nurturing for the best.

We could all use a little kindness right now. Within the workplace, this occurs through empathetic leadership. By definition, empathetic leadership means having the ability to understand the needs and perspectives of others and being aware of their thoughts and feelings. When this is applied to real-world situations within the workspace, this heightened awareness can lead to enhanced individual and team dynamics, and innovative solutions developed as a result of an environment that encourages discovery.

When leaders and their people feel safe, seen, and appreciated, they are far more likely to be engaged and innovative, and to stick around and continue creating success. When they feel supported and empowered, they are also more likely to have positive things to say to customers, colleagues, and other important stakeholders – including investors and potential new hires. In this era of seamless connectivity, the good, bad, and ugly rapidly find their way to social media and out to millions in a matter of moments. Happy and unhappy employees have the power to drive sentiment toward your company and can have a significant impact on whether someone chooses to work with you – or not.

So how do you lead with empathy? A key skill leaders can develop to become more empathetic in their leadership style is considering and affirming the perspective of others. Conflicting opinions are bound to arise when collaborating with others, and failure to understand and acknowledge the “why” behind others’ perspectives can frustrate the people we work with, stall progress, and thwart communication. When people feel that their perspective is understood and taken into consideration, collaboration becomes easier. 

Here are some additional tips from the learning experiences we developed in collaboration with several leading universities as part of our Accelerating Women Leaders collection:

  • Use Active Listening. Allow the person you’re speaking with to share what they are seeing, hearing, and feeling – and be careful to avoid minimizing how it is impacting the individual.
  • Be Curious. Ask open-ended questions and avoid judgment. 
  • Take Action. If you see signs of burnout, or sense that the individual is struggling and in need of further support, don’t hesitate. 

Be honest and patient with yourself, as well as others. If leading with empathy requires a change in behavior, be sure to keep the lines of communication open. Empathetic leadership isn’t about settling for less – it’s about nurturing for the best. Building a culture where everyone has the chance to thrive is an important way to encourage growth and success for all.

This story originally appeared in Women’s Enterprise USA, one of the nation’s foremost WBE supplier diversity publications. To learn more about WE USA or read additional content, please visit weusa.biz.  

About Julia Alexander

As Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer, Julia F. Alexander is responsible for ExecOnline’s Learning & Coaching experience, product management, programming and content, university and expert partnerships, and global learner operations support. Julia is a member of the Consumer Technology Association Board of Industry Leaders, a Board Trustee of the American Folk Art Museum in NYC, Fellow of the Truman National Security Project, and former Board Member of the Black Fives Foundation.


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