Leading with empathy by Fardus Sultan

Empathy is not something one would traditionally associate with leadership, yet it was one of the first values that appealed to me in LIFT – let me tell you why.

Over the years most of us have heard of various characteristics of leadership – how the person ought to be resilient, good communicator, see the bigger picture, motivate by leading by example and so on. While I do not negate the importance of all of those, often we forget that we all have a fundamental need to engage and connect with each other. Then, it is only natural that when we understand others, we can find out what makes them tick and thus inspire them to reach their own potential. And isn’t that what a true leader does: helps others be the best that they can be? I believe empathy is one of the fundamental keys in unlocking this potential.

Yet, despite knowing that, when we consider an inspiring leader, we often assume those very traditional traits I mentioned above and tend to overlook empathy.

So what is empathy?

In brief, psychologists describe it as a capacity to place oneself in the other’s place or to imagine oneself in other’s shoes in order to experience what others feel or see so that one can understand other’s point of view.

But why would one choose to bother or even want to feel someone else’s discomfort, when as humans, we wish to avoid it? After all, don’t we all have enough on our plates that we don’t need to take on someone else’s needs, one might ask. Well, the short answer is no. Strangely enough, studies have shown that when we engage in pro-social behaviour, purely and genuinely for the benefit of others, it is when we tend to be most satisfied too – and empathy has been credited as the inspiration for such actions.

“I get you”

So unless you place yourself in someone else’s shoes, how can you begin to understand them or even offer them a mental helping hand or just say: I get you.  Naturally, by imagining oneself in someone’s position, one can only get a sense of it, as imagining it is not the same as living it.

By being empathic and having a deeper appreciation of other’s needs, the way they interact and relate to the world around them, a leader can gain insight into their motivations as well as obstacles.

It is not surprising then, that successful marketing campaigns and user-experience (UX) designers have for years harnessed empathy for delivery of their own messages. Even social media platforms have utilised empathy in boosting their engagement. Empathic narrative constructed around deeper understanding of issues also fosters social identity.

Hence, journalists and media in general are taught to look for the personal story or the Irish angle when reporting in Ireland for instance. They recognise that people tend to empathise more with those they believe they understand and share similarities with – think of the last time a natural or a man-made disaster happened somewhere across the globe and how our media found an Irish survivor or a relative of someone affected by it and made the story more personal to us.

Building Successful Connections

A successful leader similarly utilises empathy to understand, guide and work with a person to lead them in the true sense of the word. An empathic leader can connect with diverse teams, citizens or communities in order to work with them in creating sustainable, relevant and innovative solutions, products or simply a better society.

Fardus Sultan is a member of the LIFT Ireland Advisory Board.  Fardus is a Co-founder and Managing Director of an IT consultancy and graphic design company. Fardus is a board director of Southside Partnership DLR and a founding member of Sisters of Faith for Peace as well as a community representative at Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council Special Policy Committee on Economic Development and Enterprise.