It is reassuring that empathy is becoming more widely recognised as important in the field of leadership. It doesn’t seem so long ago that being empathetic was bundled in with ‘all that soft skills stuff’ which is simply something you do in your own time or as an added bonus.

Now, it is common place for big names in leadership like Adam Grant, Steven Bartlett, Brené Brown and Forbes magazine to be regularly showcasing the benefits of empathy to leaders as well as some of the ways to cultivate more empathy.


Empathy can be a tricky term to explore as it has close cousins:

Empathy vs Sympathy – sympathy is generally feeling sorry for someone else’s situation. This is often based on your own judgement that their situation is negative.

Empathy – being able to take the perspective of another person in order to recognise what they may be feeling and / or thinking.

Empathy vs Compassion – compassion is when you empathise with another person and have the added desire to help them.


Because empathy is about seeing situations from another person’s point of view, this means a number of skills are utilised:


In their book, Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee argue that

“the fundamental task of leadership is to prime good feeling in those that they lead.”

The evolutionary instinct of humans is to gather in social groups around leaders who are able to make us feel safe and attend to our needs. In modern society we do not have the same survival risks of hunger and attack, so instead our needs are primarily around emotions, feeling valued and having meaning.

They categorise two general categories of leadership which other specific styles may fit into:

Resonant Leadership – when the leader is attuned to the feelings and needs of people in order to move them into a positive direction.

Dissonant Leadership – when the leader is out of touch with people’s feelings and needs and so undermines the emotional foundations that let people shine.

The skill of empathy is the cornerstone of being ‘attuned’ to the feelings and needs of others. Whilst some may argue that it is possible to move people in a positive direction without empathy (perhaps by simply setting goals or providing managerial processes) it is easy to see how understanding your team well allows you help them feel good, motivate them and result in better outcomes.

Research studies also support the idea that empathy improves leadership outcomes.

889 employees were surveyed by Catalyst in order to explore the effects of empathy in the workplace. Individuals were asked to rate their managers / leaders empathy levels alongside answering other questions about their workplace experiences. In summary the study found:

In summary, practicing empathy as a leadership skill has both a moral and a business case:


Wherever you are currently at, the good news is that you can continue to learn and nurture your empathy skills – and just like any skill, the key is practice.

There’s no hard and fast path to developing empathy, more a buffet of different tools and practices that you can build into your life in order to give your opportunities to work on the different facets of empathy. For example:

Practicing empathy ultimately changes the way you show up for others as a leader and means that people around you feel better respected, supported and like they belong. Empathy is a win-win skill that you have the power to keep on nurturing.

The Self Leadership Initiative is a soft skills training provider. If you want support in developing your empathy skills, get in touch to explore bespoke sessions for your needs.