Empathy in Action - Why it's Needed in Leadership

Julie Jones

Have you ever slowed down enough to truly observe people and their interactions with others?  If you haven’t, you might miss the nuances of many people who are accomplished at demonstrating empathy.  Dictionary.com defines empathy as …” identifying with and experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and attitudes of another.”  For those who demonstrate empathy, they transition from their own “I” focused needs and seek to understand the other person’s perspective. Teresa Wiseman, a nursing scholar, has identified four elements of empathy:

  • to be able to see the world as others see it
  • to be nonjudgmental
  • to understand another’s feelings
  • communicate the understanding of that person’s feelings.

Empathy can be confused with sympathy. Empathy is an understanding of the feelings of others, while sympathy is a show of care or concern without understanding what it is like to be in their situation.  Empathy means that you have taken the time to recognize people, their challenges, and want to understand their perspective without adding your opinion to the conversation. Empathy is about the other person.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to be aware of, control, and express your emotions to foster positive relationships. Empathy - an expression of emotion shown to another is a key ingredient in building trust and creating positive people centric workcultures.

Recently, I observed people on a 4-hour flight from Columbus to Las Vegas and recognized empathy in action in everyday routines.

Flyer #1
– A businessman helped a few people struggling to get their bags in the overhead storage compartments. He didn’t watch others struggle. Instead, he offered a hand.  

Flyer #2
– On Southwest flights, there is no assigned seating, passengers covet front row, aisle and window seats.  Two of the last passengers to board the airplane were an elderly couple, and the husband had obvious medical issues.  There was one front row middle seat available for him, but the only other seat available for the wife was at the rear of the plane.  Flyer #2 offered her second-row aisle seat to the wife so the couple could be near each other while flyer #2 moved to the far back of the plane in a middle seat.  She wasn’t caught up in her own needs and recognized that there were others with a greater need and gave of herself for their benefit.    

Flyer #3
 patiently listened and discussed Ohio State football with an elderly gentleman sitting across the aisle from him.  At a time when most want quiet on airplanes, flyer #3 took the time to engage the older man and continue the conversation because the other gentleman wanted to talk.   He could have stopped the conversation but recognized that the gentleman appreciated the connection.  

Why did these “flyers” give of themselves on this day?   These people honor and value people and willingly viewed the situations from others’ perspectives and needs. They belong to a  group of people I call helpers, high empathy people. Helper’s natural tendency is to reach out to others and put others’ needs ahead of their own and appreciate the other’s perspective or need.  Helpers create a better world for others. Unfortunately, they are also usually humble, so they don’t advertise their good deeds. 

Why is empathy important for leaders?

Empathy helps leaders combat VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity present in today’s workplaces. COVID certainly introduced VUCA at a high level into the workplace. Leaders must understand the needs, concerns, and perspectives of their team as the team tackles tough challenges. Employees are more likely to follow your lead if they feel heard, valued and appreciated. Empathy matters.


People skills such as communication, building relationships, and empathy are frequently ranked among the top skill gaps in leaders today. The pressures of work and outcomes have shifted many leaders to form transactional relationships with employees. Transactional leadership is focused on things, processes, and outcomes ahead of the needs of employees.


Empathy can be learned, but it takes practice to develop stronger skills. Start with everyday interactions with people like those described on the recent airline flight. Hone your skills and extend sincerity and empathy to create stronger connections at work. It is also helpful to watch for empathy behaviors in others at work. What would you see? Do you acknowledge and value those people who make the workplace better for everyone else?


Ask yourself these questions:

  • Did I do my best today to show empathy?
  • Did I have an opportunity to show empathy at work and not recognize it until later?
  • Did I make a difference for at least one person today?


Action and Reflection:

Commit time this week to:

  • Silently observe other’s empathy behaviors. What did you see?
  • Acknowledge and thank the helpers who create a more empathetic workplace for others.
  • Practice using empathy at least once each day.


At the end of the week, how do you feel? Most researchers have noted that when you give more of yourself, you feel better, improve your outlook, and you begin to search for new ways to give more of yourself. Giving is powerful and becomes part of your brand. Ask yourself, “Am I a helper?” If not, what can you do to change it?

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