“Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.” – Wendell Berry
Much is written and said about the most important qualities of leaders. Words like “great communicator” or “visionary” or “strategic thinker” or any number of others get tossed around. All of those are appropriate. I think there’s one that too often gets missed. Empathy.
Empathy isn’t necessarily very popular these days. It’s not really trendy to make an effort to “understand and share the feelings of another”. We all like to think we’re right and that anybody who doesn’t agree with our rightness must be an idiot, or maybe even a terrible person. The idea that we might take the time to think about the other person’s perspective and really try to understand the circumstances that impact that person rarely even crosses our mind.
That’s a dangerous path for a leader to tread. How can you possibly be a great communicator without understanding those you’re attempting to communicate with? How can you clearly define a vision or a strategy for an organization without first attempting to comprehend the people who make up that organization? It doesn’t make sense.
I’ve heard some leaders say things like, “I have to make decisions that are best for the business regardless of how people feel.” That’s true, mostly. You do have to make decisions that are best for the business as a whole, and not all of those decisions will be popular, and that’s OK. I’m not suggesting that being empathetic means you necessarily have to agree with those with whom you empathize, or that your decisions as a leader must change based on how others feel. All I’m suggesting is that it isn’t possible to successfully lead people without making an effort to understand them and put yourself in their shoes.
Think about yourself as a leader. Are you empathetic? Do you attempt to understand where others are coming from and how they got there? Think about the relationships you have with others in the business (or outside of it, for that matter). Do you regularly think about how those individuals might feel about certain situations or circumstances? Do you regularly think about why they might feel that way? If you can’t answer yes to those questions then you’re failing one of the most important parts of the job.