Leadership Empathy

design-10What do good leaders know about the emotions of those they lead?

Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman write and talk about the emotions of everyday people, leaders included. Goleman’s book, On Emotional Intelligence is a highly recognized and invaluable resource for today’s leaders (I believe it should be required reading for every pastor).

In a recent article, Goleman and Ekman detail 3 ways that a leader can sense what another person is feeling. Leaders who have a developed social and emotional intelligence are far more effective at leading others than those who do not. This concept is especially important to those of us who work closely with people who struggle or experience crisis. I found the information helpful in the continual honing of my leadership skills.

The first trait listed is “cognitive empathy,” which is simply being aware of how the other person feels and perhaps what they could be thinking at that time. Most people are able to read the emotions of others. Verbal and physical cues provide most of the data needed in order to identify the emotional state of others. However, leaders must be aware that, in some situations, being aware is not enough. This skill is appropriate when negotiating a deal or brokering a transaction. But in especially sensitive circumstances, others can perceive cognitive empathy as cold hearted, detached or non-caring. Depending upon the nature of the issue being addressed, cognitive empathy may not be enough.

When dealing with people in crisis, leaders should also display “emotional empathy.” Emotional empathy is when a leader feels the emotions of those they lead. It provides the ability to sense AND feel what is happening in the people around us. This is a vitally important trait for those in ministry, in helps industries, and especially for parents. Any married person had better master this skill! Of course, there are times when emotional empathy can hinder the effectiveness of a leader. An example may be a pastor who must provide care to a grieving family. If the minister cannot compose herself long enough to conduct a funeral service, they won’t be able to help the family much. There is a time to cry and laugh along with people, but there is also a time to maintain composure.

Ekman identifies a third element: “compassionate empathy,” which Goleman calls “empathic concern.” This type of empathy takes a leader beyond awareness and sensitivity – to action. We are moved to get involved. Once again, in crisis situations, this trait can be invaluable. Unless and until leaders regularly experience and express compassionate empathy, they are lacking a Christ-like attitude about leadership.

While we are not the Messiah, the Lord calls Christian leaders to not only be aware of and experience the emotions of those we lead, but at times, we are compelled to engage in helping to heal the hurting. James 2:15-16 provides thought: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (NIV) Not every situation requires a leader to have empathetic concern (we would be in a mess if they did), but leaders must never lose the ability to feel and take appropriate actions.

As the world becomes more complex, the responsibilities of leaders follow suit. It is necessary for us to be aware of emotions, feel along with those we lead and know what action to take and when.

It’s not as easy as some people think. So let’s work on it.