To succeed in tough times, try leading with empathy

As corporations retool their businesses for a highly competitive post-pandemic world, the need for empathetic leadership has never been greater.

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Last fall the U.S. Army made a remarkable announcement: Moving forward, the largest branch of the world’s mightiest military machine would make people its number one priority. Leaders backed up that statement with an action plan that gave units more time at home “to invest in their Soldiers and families” and outlined “rapid, positive and meaningful steps toward reducing systemic and symbolic inequities.”

The Army calls the plan a response to the human cost of two decades of constant conflict. But it also reflects a growing understanding among top-tier organizations that leading with empathy gets results – especially in times of crisis such as the current pandemic.

In a recent analysis of its global database of 360-degree leader assessments, leader development consultancy Zenger/Folkman found that employees rank empathetic leader traits as most important for the current environment: for example, the ability to inspire through communication, sensitivity to anxiety in others and relationship-building skills. The study showed that women leaders consistently scored higher in these areas, which may offer some insight into the highly publicized success of pandemic responses from women-led governments.

As corporations retool their businesses for a highly competitive post-pandemic world, the need for empathetic leadership has never been greater. Employees, customers and local communities are suffering varying degrees of stress, anxiety and economic insecurity; a leadership mindset grounded in empathy can deliver results to investors while contributing to an inclusive recovery for all stakeholders.

Here are four strategies for demonstrating empathy that every corporate leader should consider:

  • For customers: Train frontline employees to become active listeners who are better able to understand and respond to customers’ unique needs.
  • For employees: Invest in wellness resources to ensure employees have the resilience to adapt to a fast-changing world.
  • For local communities: Adopt hiring strategies that ensure our businesses reflect the diversity of the communities we serve.
  • For the world: Align investment strategies with ESG criteria so that we contribute to a more equitable and sustainable future.

While many traditional leadership competencies remain important in difficult times, on their own they are not enough.  What people crave now are leaders who inspire confidence through empathy and promote the greater good.

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