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EMPATHY SERIES |Part 1: Great leaders connect emotionally

Whilst the COVID pandemic brought much pain and suffering, it also came bearing gifts. One of the most valuable was our realisation that empathy and compassion was just as important a part of leadership as being tough and resolute. Jacinda Ardern is just one example of a leader that stands as testament to this now self-evident truth.

One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong. Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand

It's with relief that I see empathy increasingly being seen as an essential leadership skill, because not only does empathy recognise our inalienable humanness, but the evidence is also quite clear on the relationship between empathy and leadership effectiveness.

In one of the larger studies by the Centre for Creative Leadership, researchers asked, ‘Is empathy needed to be successful in a leader’s job?’. To answer this question, they analysed leaders’ empathy based on their reported behaviour. Using a sample of 6731 leaders from 38 countries, they then asked at least three subordinates to rate the leaders on their display of empathic emotion. Each manager in the sample also had one boss rate them on three items that measured job performance. This allowed the researchers to establish if a link existed between leader empathy and job performance.

The results of the study revealed that empathy is positively related to job performance. Empathy, as rated by the leader’s subordinates, positively predicted job performance ratings from the leader’s boss. In other words, leaders who show more empathy toward direct reports were also rated as better performers in their job by their bosses. What’s more, the findings were culturally universal, with empathy being important across all 38 countries in the study. Empathy also has a halo effect on other people’s perceptions of your leadership.

People rated highly on empathy are much more likely to be seen as better leaders by their peers, not just in terms of relationship management, but also in terms of task performance.

In other words, empathetic leaders are viewed by their peers as more effective in managing both relationships and results. This contrasts with leaders who instead are considered smart and knowledgeable, and might be considered more competent at leading tasks, but not at leading relationships. Therefore, being perceived as empathetic will have positive influences on others’ willingness to engage with you, as well as others’ perceptions of your leadership effectiveness – a useful outcome, as the following comments from Julia Gillard highlight.

Q&A episode broadcast on ABC channel, 13 July 2020 featuring Julia Gillard, former Australian Prime Minister, professor and Brookings Institute Senior Fellow

Audience Member: Whether it’s Trump in the US, Bolsonaro in Brazil, or Johnson in the UK, the pandemic has exposed the shortfalls of a ‘strong man’ style of leadership. Do you think the future of global politics sits in the style of leadership exhibited by female heads of state, like Merkel in Germany or Ardern in New Zealand, and do you think there is something to be said for the distinctly feminine style of leadership being the answer to navigating this crisis?

Julia Gillard: I’m not a believer that men and women are inherently different in their leadership’s not that our brains are different, but we are socialised differently...and received differently. For a female leader to succeed, she has to balance strength and empathy. If she is too strong, people will say ‘she’s not very likeable’, and if she’s too nurturing and caring, people will say ‘she hasn’t got the backbone to lead’.

So, female leaders are already very skilled in the balance of strength and empathy and, in a time like this, people want both. They want to know that someone is getting the job done, but they also want someone to care about how they are feeling, and I think people like Jacinda Ardern (and) Erna Solberg in Norway have really been able to put that together.

The evidence is quite clear both anecdotally and empirically. Empathy and compassion are central to the exercise of better leadership. But what exactly is empathy? How can you develop it? Is it even trainable? These are the questions that I explore in the next few blog articles. If however you can’t wait to find the answers, or you would like to take a much deeper dive on this topic, there is a whole chapter dedicated to it in my book Xtraordinary: The Art and Science of Remarkable Leadership.

1 Gentry, WA, Weber, TJ & Sadri, G (2008), ‘Empathy in the workplace: A tool for effective leadership’, The Centre for Creative Leadership.

2 Kellett, J, Humphrey, R & Sleeth, R (2016), ‘Empathy and the emergence of task and relations leaders’, The Leadership Quarterly, April.


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