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It’s Not Empathy vs. Accountability: for Great Leaders It’s Both

I empathize with leaders who can’t quite adjust to the evolutionary change making today’s workplaces unrecognizable from what they used to be. Never before have leaders had to face so much uncertainty and challenge, or opportunity and possibility. And all without the confidence of using the age-old skills that have historically defined good leadership.

Not too many years ago, the purpose of leadership was to figure out what needed to be done and then tell employees what, where, when, and how to do it. A leader’s role was to administrate and direct. Leaders made most decisions, focused on results, managed conflicts, and delegated. And sometimes they scared people. You can’t create business success by applying this outdated understanding of leadership to our modern world where leadership is about inspiring and coaching. And yet so many try.

I wonder whether these traditionalists fear they’ll seem weak and feel disrespected if they lead with their heart. I wonder if they equate caring for their people with not being able to hold them accountable for performance goals—when the opposite is true. Empathy is now recognized as a key driver of success and, if you had to choose the single most important leadership trait, many would argue that it’s empathy. I want to give each fearful leader a hug and tell them to choose courage over comfort in learning the critical new skills required of today’s great leaders—and the great satisfaction they’ll get from being more human.

“Soft skills” like empathy used to be considered “feminine” and certainly not typical of “strong” leaders. In a recent survey of The Growth Faculty membership database of worldwide leaders, participants were asked, “What is the one characteristic every leader should have?” Respondents often listed soft skills at the top, with empathy the most popular trait followed by humility, self-awareness, and ability to listen. Recent Deloitte research forecasts that two-thirds of jobs will be soft-skill intensive by 2030. Soft skills, rarely appreciated by traditional leaders of the past, are seen as essential building blocks for creative, flexible, high-performing teams capable of succeeding in today’s tumultuous climate.

As Alain Hunkins, author of Cracking the Leadership Code, said in a recent Forbes article, “The business case for empathy is clear.” He cites a 2021 Businessolver study that found 84 percent of CEOs and 70 percent of employees believe empathy drives better business outcomes. Additionally, the study found that empathic leaders perform more than 40 percent higher in overall performance. If you get great leadership skills right, you’ll win more of the top talent, who are up to eight times more productive, according to McKinsey. Empathy is the secret sauce to retaining good people and your best tool for creating success. Yet, this now common knowledge has not made empathy a common practice.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming empathy is simply about pleasing people or showering them with kindness. Practicing empathy makes you a better leader by enabling you to more naturally collaborate, listen and understand, build stronger employee relationships, establish mutual trust, drive engagement and innovation, improve work-life balance, and nurture overall wellbeing in your people.

What flows from all of these benefits of practicing empathy are clear expectations and a sense of ownership, the foundations for building a culture of strong accountability. Empathy and accountability converge when leaders focus on business drivers as well as human drivers to create trusting communities where both people and organizations thrive. If practicing empathy is still outside your comfort zone, look to your heart and business sense for the courage to change and reflect upon the parable below:

The parable of “The Long Spoons” explains the meaning of empathy perfectly:

A man wonders what heaven and hell are like. He first opens the door to hell where thin, sickly-looking people sit at a large round table with a big pot of stew in the middle. They each hold a spoon with a very long handle so they can reach for a bite. But since the handles are longer than their arms, the people can’t get the spoons back to their mouths to eat, and they’re starving. The man shudders at the misery and shuts the door.

Then opening the door to heaven, he’s surprised to see the same large round table with the large pot of stew in the center. The people are holding the same long-handled spoons, but they are obviously well nourished and are talking and laughing together. The man is confused at first, but then sees that these people have learned to reach across the table to share and feed one another with their spoons. Instead of thinking only about their own gratification, they realize that people are interdependent and connected on a deep level. Moral: By thinking only of our own welfare, we’re not helping others and we’re unconsciously harming ourselves.

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