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Lead with empathy

by Mimi Nicklin
Indian Management November 2020

Empathetic leadership is not for the fainthearted. It is always-on, it may be costly in terms of time, and it needs to be trained. But when all is said and done, it is a choice we absolutely need more leaders to make.

There is much talk of a new normal for the business world and there seems to be a sentiment that we are passive in its arrival. The reality of this ‘new’ world of business, however, is the opposite. It is us, as a collective group of leaders across industries, that will put into place the decision-making and the new cultural values that form the future of how and where we work. Our approach to regenerating our workplaces and teams with empathy, and understanding, at the core is no longer a nice to have but a survival prerequisite. The longer the pandemic goes on, the more ‘normal’ the ‘new’ environment becomes and for employees, having a team of leaders who understand and relate to their changing realities is table stakes.

With the experience of the months gone by, our teams are already reconsidering what work means to them and how they see the future of their work life choices. Many are questioning their need to maintain an office-based role, and none more than the millennials who have never been a group afraid to challenge the status quo.

The requirement for leadership teams to pivot and relook the way they manage and motivate their teams, has been fast tracked as we see corporations needing to shift culturally, and indeed operationally, to a more human-centric approach. As we plan for 2021 and look to the culture and skill sets we will need to embed to create competitive teams in our marketplaces, leadership teams will be driven by the need for direction that goes beyond the rational, and connects with people on a far more authentic and motivating level. The need to recognise the shared human values of our team members, as well as their business value, has never been more poignant. Employees are expecting to see the ‘soul’ behind the leadership role. The gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ organisationally has been ever tightened, as we live through live video communication beamed from our homes, our families, and our personal lives. It is a time for those leaders who can truly understand their teams beyond the output that they create, to really empathise and inspire them.

For a large number of leaders today, many of whom were trained in a previous era of leadership thinking, this move to more emotionally intelligent, empathetically influenced, and regeneratively-led business is infinitely difficult to grasp. When you have the same conversation with a millennial leader, however, they understand intrinsically that this move is not an option, it is what 21st century business, and certainly business post the COVID-19 crisis, is already poised to be founded on.

In nearly all industry categories (from hospitality to medicine, travel to banking, insurance to plumbing), we are built on and by people. It should be a basic benchmark that leaders and CEOs see themselves as being there to sustainably serve their people and to do everything they can to build and nourish the teams running and managing their industries. The leaders today who are embracing this concept are the leaders who are making waves and creating teams of loyal, fulfilled employees who stand the test of time: President Obama, Oprah, Simon Sinek (writer and thought leader), Jacinda Ardern (Prime Minister of New Zealand), Satya Nadella (CEO, Microsoft), John Mackey (CEO, Whole Foods). These are names you undoubtedly know, all well-known spokespeople and accomplished leaders who talk firmly to the role of empathetic influence and regenerative leadership as the future of our organisations and societies.

It was Raj Sisodia, a founder and leader of the fast-growing global Conscious Capitalism movement, that said, “Businesses have created a lot of value but there has also been tremendous human suffering. We have experienced on a grand scale the societal consequences of this way of being, be it the financial crises or the various environmental crises that we face.

Human beings are also evolving rapidly: we are far better informed, connected, more intelligent, more conscious, more driven by meaning and purpose and more in harmony with values such as empathy. Business as usual simply will not work anymore, nor can people and the planet afford the many “negative externalities” that are generated by this way of being. We have to rethink everything.”

So how do we increase the motivation for change and how do we create a far-reaching practice amongst the leaders of today, and more importantly, the leaders who will take us into the future? It is time to train. To teach. To elevate the conversation and change the narrative. To start telling the stories of empathetic influence and conscientious regenerative leadership more often.

And, most importantly, it is time to practise at large. We need to prove the value of the practice and embed empathy into far more winning scenarios. It is time to move from simply a value exchange to an exchange of values between our people, our partners, and our stakeholders.

Empathy is malleable, so if we can connect empathy to our most senior leaders, we can manifest the change at a speed that resembles progress.

Given science proves that empathy is physiologically rewarding, and that people essentially choose to empathise when given the chance, the barrier we need to leap over is one of corporate belief and frequency. This is deeply heartening because these are barriers that, given time, we can address.

The best things in life have never been the easiest things to conquer, and this journey will be no different. The transformation will take immense amounts of grit, patience, and humanity at an always-on scale. It will challenge us and exhaust us and imbue our already busy leadership roles with additional layers of emotional intelligence. But when you step back and look at the alternative, firstly, we really have no choice, and secondly, we will find great reward, hope, and growth in our actions. It will further change the way we see the world and our roles, and it will open up relationships and reciprocal success in ways we are missing today. The return on our efforts will alter our future, our profits, and our outlook.

Empathetic leadership is not for the fainthearted. It is always-on, it may be costly in terms of time, and it needs to be trained. But when all is said and done, it is a choice we absolutely need more leaders to make. For the individuals they influence and the teams of millennials and Gen Zs they employ. Regenerative Leadership sits at the very core of what the organisations of today, and more importantly tomorrow, will need to rely on to thrive.

Mimi Nicklin is a globally recognised millennial thought leader. She is host of the Empathy for Breakfast show, Secrets of The Gap podcast and author of the new book Softening the Edge.

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