What one characteristic defines a successful leader?

Above all else, effective leaders need empathy

Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

A couple of weeks ago, I was at the Human Resources Institute of Alberta (HRIA) Annual Conference and Tradeshow in Calgary with my colleague John Hobel. We were standing at the Thomson Reuters booth when one of the conference delegates asked us a very interesting question that got us both thinking about leadership.

As part of our “Toughest HR Question” promotion, we solicit questions from conference delegates and then have a panel of internal and external experts answer some of those questions in Canadian HR Reporter and compile the answers in a book.

Generally speaking, delegates write down their questions on a special ballot and are entered into a draw to win a prize, but in this case the lady in question verbally asked us the following question: “What one characteristic above all else defines a successful leader?”

Even though the question was designed to be a difficult one, I answered her with the first word that popped into my head: “Empathy.” I still stand by my initial answer, even though I came up with it so quickly.

Why empathy is important

I’m cheating a little bit here because the idea is to answer the questions in the actual publication. But it’s one of those weeks when I’m having a case of writer’s block — so I’m going to answer that question here.

There are several reasons why I believe empathy is the number one trait of successful leaders. But before we go any further, let’s examine what the word actually means.

Empathy is the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes and be able to understand and share that person’s thoughts and feelings. That’s quite different from sympathy, which is when someone feels sorrow or pity for another individual, particularly in the context of unfortunate circumstances or events.

While it’s important for leaders to be sympathetic, empathy to me is a far broader concept and can apply in just about any situation — whether positive or negative.

Without an understanding of what people are going through, a leader will never be able to understand what makes them tick. And she certainly won’t be able to inspire others to greatness or convince them she has their best interests at heart.

That’s not the same as saying a leader has to be able to perform the task in question. An effective leader should be able to delegate and surround herself with competent people. She doesn’t have to know everything.

Particularly at the more senior levels, leaders need to trust their direct reports and avoid micromanaging them.

But in order to be respected, leaders do need to have at least some understanding of the department or function they’re managing. Even if a leader has never done the work personally, he needs to have at least a broad understanding of what his direct reports are going through and their feelings about the work in question.

That applies on a personal as well as a team level. In order to be truly empathetic, leaders have to get to know their followers and direct reports personally.

That includes knowing what motivates people and what is particularly important to them. Also important is providing recognition and support and considering other people’s feelings before your own.

One of my biggest mistakes as a fairly new manager happened at a tradeshow when one of our sales reps introduced me to a customer of ours. I was extremely embarrassed because the rep was basically gushing over me and suggesting I was singlehandedly responsible for the launch of our online service.

I could feel my face going bright red and I desperately wanted to make her stop. I was so embarrassed, all I could think to say was how my boss at the time had actually come up with the idea (which was true).

But I forgot to mention one very important detail. My colleague who was standing right next to me had been there with me developing the service all along. Not only had she done a ton of the work to create the content, but we had gone through a lot together through a highly stressful launch period and beyond.

Naturally, she was pretty upset about that — and rightfully so. As a leader, I should have put aside my own feelings of embarrassment and made a point of recognizing my colleague by expressing my appreciation for her hard work and dedication.

It all comes down to empathy.

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