Most of what separates a good leader from a bad leader is one important quality.
It’s not brains. It’s not experience. It’s not wit, charm, courage, or authority.
It’s empathy. The ability to understand how other people feel. The awareness to connect with the pain and fear in someone else’s life.
It’s you realizing that the same illogical behavior you find completely inexcusable in others is exactly the way you are wired to behave by default.
Empathy allows you to understand how a high-performing person suddenly appears to be worthless.
Why your best customers become so upset when you take their loyalty for granted. How the personal stuff of life, like divorce or illness, can be completely overwhelming.
It’s usually not the logical things in life that trip us up. It has everything to do with emotions.
Experiencing loss. Going through unexpected tragedy. That sense of overwhelm and stress.
You can’t out-think your way to better leadership. You can’t out-warrior your way to better results. It takes empathy to help people change.
John Lennon said it best:
“‘THERE ARE TWO BASIC MOTIVATING FORCES: FEAR AND LOVE. WHEN WE ARE AFRAID, WE PULL BACK FROM LIFE. WHEN WE ARE IN LOVE, WE OPEN TO ALL THAT LIFE HAS TO OFFER WITH PASSION, EXCITEMENT, AND ACCEPTANCE.’ ”
Meeting them where they are. Not scolding them because they haven’t made it to where you are. Believing in the best of them even when that’s not how they’re acting right now. Giving them time to heal.
And sometimes, empathy means you have to get in someone’s face and challenge them to do what they already know they should be doing.
But being empathetic isn’t easy all the time. In fact, it isn’t easy most days. The truth is that you’ve got your own emotions to deal with.
You are going to feel like you don’t have time or space to handle anyone else’s drama. You’ve got your own sense of overwhelm and fear to handle.
What’s unique about empathy is that it has a tremendous return on investment. By being empathetic to others you instantly feel better about yourself. You stop thinking about your own particular situation. In so doing, you begin to heal you.
They feel better. You feel better. Your empathy is what made the difference.
It doesn’t take too much practice to improve your own abilities at being empathetic.
In fact, when you find yourself feeling frustrated by others — when things don’t seem to make sense — there are two questions you should ask yourself.
- How would I feel if I were in this exact same situation?
- What else is going on behind the scenes for them that I don’t know about?
You see, that same behavior you can’t understand in someone else is how you yourself have reacted in the past. Maybe it’s been a while. And maybe not to the same degree of intensity. But you’ve been overwhelmed.
You’ve responded irrationally. You’ve been that person that has other people scratching their head in bewilderment.
In truth, when you were overwhelmed, others didn’t know everything that was going on in your life and in your mind.
You kept that to yourself. You determined to power through.
That was your plan of attack. Just put your head down and grind. That’s what they’re doing now too. You just can’t see it. You can’t feel it like they feel it.
Which is why empathy matters. That’s why it’s what separates the great leaders from everyone else. Until you can fully appreciate what that other person is going through, you will never be in a position to inspire them to follow.
You’ll never be equipped to bring out the best of them. You’ll be left feeling stuck and frustrated. Complaining that your team doesn’t care as much as you do.
So ask yourself: how would I feel? What else is going on?
The truth is you could probably use a bit more empathy.