The Power of Empathy
By Stephane Leblanc, Founder and CEO, International Centre for Conscious Leadership
I have been in business for 30 years now and I have seen the best of leadership and the worse of leadership.
I have seen leaders care for the well-being of their people and lead them to greatness and I have seen people treat people like numbers and destroy the company culture.
I remember one day when I was a senior executive in a large international company that was going through significant financial challenges. All the VP's from broup were brought in a room to learn that the CEO had decided that the solution to our financial challenges was to fire 15% of the office employees. Within a week, this 15% became 20% as this is what was needed to make the numbers work.
I remember vividly this moment in the boardroom when I heard this news and I felt in my body all the pain all these 2700 employees and their family would feel following the execution of this plan.
I remember objecting to this order and being told there was no room for discussion as this was a decision taken by the CEO and our job was to execute it. I felt there was a total disregard for the well-being of the employees impacted who had trusted us with their career and had sacrificed so much for the success of the organization. I actually refused to execute this decision and I left the organization shortly afterwards.
I have been leading with a higher level of consciousness for many years which also means I lead with love and not fear. This does not mean I am not able to make tough decision as I actually am, but I am also able to make these decisions considering the impact on the people I lead and the people I serve.
Recently, I have been blessed to meet Anita Nowak, who is a university professor at McGill in Montreal and also an empathy expert, and she helped me understand how important empathy is for conscious leaders.
She defines empathy as the innate trait that unite us in our humanity.
This resonates a lot for me as I have understood for a long time that we are all intimately connected and that separation is an illusion. What we do to others, we do to ourselves.
Also, as the business world is still mostly led by the masculine we find a lot of warrior leaders who sacrifice themselves and will do anything required to meet the numbers. As they sacrifice themselves, their health, their family and their well-being, they often ask those they lead to do the same. I know this as I was one of those leaders for many years.
This can work in the short term but it will not work in the long term as people will eventually become disengaged which will significantly impact productivity and results.
In her research on social entrepreneurship, Anita Nowak found a common traits in most of social entrepreneurs which was empathy and the willingness to act on empathy for others.
She put empathy on a continuum called the altruistic emotion continuum which stats with pity, goes to sympathy, compassion and then empathy. When we pity someone, we look down on them. As we make our way across the continuum, empathy is where we recognize that we share a common humanity. That we may have been born to different circumstances, from differences places, from different opportunities, but we are all the same and any kind of social change work that is predicated on empathy has different outcomes than any other kind of initiatives.
Empathy allows us to connect with other people as it removes the barriers to connection as we recognize that we are all human with our own fears, limiting beliefs and life challenges.
The challenge is when leaders choose to ignore the fact that they are leading humans and they forget that those they lead also have a life outside of work with a spouse, kids and parents and as they come to work, they also bring the challenges of their personal life to work just like they bring the challenges of their professional life at home.
Empathy is a very important quality for conscious leaders as it allows people to come to work with their whole self and not just the professional self. It allows leaders to create a psychologically safe work environment where people can thrive individually and as a team and also care for clients at a level that few companies do, which directly leads to loyalty as we have a tendency to buy from companies we love and this will surely contribute to breakthrough results.
Are you ready to embrace empathy in your leadership?