The One Skill Every Leader Needs To Master

What are you like to work with? Have you ever wondered? Are you moody? Inconsistent? Intense? Approachable? Do you think you know? Have you ever asked someone?

I was recently re-reading a favourite article (if it were a paper copy, it would be heavily earmarked) on the six habits of highly empathetic people. And it occurred to me that a lot of the ways we talk about “leadership” (developing it, being it, honing it) presumes a one-size-fits-all view of ‘who’ a leader is…

Sure, the best leaders generally share a number of traits:

  • Good communicators
  • Trustworthiness
  • Experience
  • Knowledge
  • Visionary

…But with every team being made up of a number of personalities, I wonder: Am I a different leader for each of my staff? Am I a tailored coworker for every teammate?

The article, which I highly suggest you read, defines empathy as “the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions.” That’s where empathy takes its leap from kindness or pity  (i.e. making small talk with the new marketing coordinator is friendly, not empathetic).

Bill Drayton, founder of social entrepreneurship and the Ashoka Foundation, believes that “in an era of rapid technological change, mastering empathy is the key business survival skill because it underpins successful teamwork and leadership.”

No doubt, the word empathy is buzzing for a reason – people are figuring out what works in the modern, team-oriented, open-space office – and interpersonal relationships are key. Here are some of the top empathetic traits laid out in the article and how you can apply them to work:

1. Be Curious About Others

You’ve spent a lot of time strategizing the best roles for your department. You’ve made some bang-on hires and now you’re finally feeling satisfied the team is complete. But wait, you didn’t just hire marketers and software engineers, you hired people.

Get to know the people behind the titles: the mother who needs 5 minutes to shake off the daily daycare drop-off before tackling yesterday’s numbers, the lactose-intolerant manager you keep taking to your favourite pizza joint for performance reviews. Take the time to learn what drives your team and get to know their off-the-clock story. This is especially useful for those who believe in strengths-based performance.

2. Listen Hard—And Open Up

At your next feedback session or group meeting, try out what the author callsradical listening.” That’s your ability to comprehend and recognize what’s really going on: “the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing in that very moment.”

If your one-on-ones are going nowhere, try asking some leading questions and listening hard to the response. And don’t forget the 93% rule. The actual words being said account for a mere 7% of the context; the rest should be translated via body language, tone, and other non-verbal cues.

As for the “open up” part, the author says it’s all about being vulnerable: “Removing our masks and revealing our feelings to someone is vital for creating a strong empathic bond. Empathy is a two-way street that, at its best, is built upon mutual understanding—an exchange of our most important beliefs and experiences.”

3. Inspire Mass Action and Social Change

In these days of retention and engagement woes, what if we spent less time worrying about keeping old employees and more time welcoming and easing any potential stressors for the new ones? Would a culture of highly empathetic employees create a mentorship model whereby employees felt obliged to the people below them (as in the ‘I was helped, I will help’ sense). Would staff feel their place, beyond brand or job title, as being defined by how they interact and build-up others?

In all honesty, while I’ve spent my fair share of time thinking about leadership as a concept and a goal, I’m not sure I’ve ever actually asked myself what it’s like to work for me – and how that experience might change from person to person.  I am working up the courage to ask.

Photo from HBR.