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The most critical leadership quality right now? Empathy.


By Brian Tierney

Originally appeared in Philadelphia Business Journal.


The Most Critical Leadership Quality Right Now? Empathy.

As we navigate these uncertain times, I routinely find myself saying the same three words to those around me: “How are you?”

There is so much power in that question because it strikes at the very core of who we are and what we do. In that moment, you make a human connection and open yourself up to someone else’s lived experience, superseding any apparent differences in status, identity or background.

We need a little bit more of that right now.

Life – and business – is all about connections, and empathy is a critical leadership skill. As companies adjust to the breakneck pace of COVID-19, leaders need to step up by stepping back, putting themselves in the position of their colleagues, clients and community members. In doing so, they can create a culture of compassion, dignity and respect – highly desirable characteristics that will last far beyond our return to “normal.”

Empathy takes time – but it’s worth the investment

I love this piece of wisdom from Benjamin Franklin: “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

With respect to Mr. Franklin, I would argue that, in this particular moment in history, an investment in empathy pays the best interest. Empathy requires a leader to take the time to actively listen and truly make a heart-to-heart connection. For a few moments, the world needs to pause: which can be easier said than done in a world of nonstop emails, social media posts and instant messaging.

In those moments you have an opportunity to glimpse into someone else’s life and reflect on your own. The search for commonality is core to deepening your connection and understanding someone else’s wants, hopes and needs. It fosters a foundation of trust and sends a powerful message that you care about them as an individual – which in turn creates loyalty and engagement.

Go ahead, be human

In difficult times, leaders often think that they need to rise to the occasion and put forth a fearless front. That approach works well for some, but I believe that being open and authentic with others can be equally – if not more – effective.

Recently, on a call with my team, I shared how I was feeling: like many of them, I’m concerned about the state of our world and how it is impacting our most vulnerable populations. The news changes so rapidly and can be draining to watch. My phone is constantly buzzing with push notifications about the latest virus updates. “Overwhelming” would be putting it mildly.

My admission was met with a chorus of, “Us too.”

What followed was a candid discussion during which my team was able to open up and share their thoughts. A leader should express optimism and hope, but sometimes knocking down those walls helps humanize you. It allows a team to feel comfortable communicating their fears and concerns, and in this time of physical distance and telecommuting, helps bring them together. Lead by example and show that everyone is entitled to their emotions, and that their feelings are valid.

Expand your worldview

When my team meets, everyone’s voice matters – from interns to executives. If people feel that their opinion is valued and their ideas will be heard, it encourages sharing and instills confidence. Confidence breeds leadership.

My favorite part of being a leader is helping others grow into leaders themselves. There is no prouder feeling than witnessing a talented colleague gain the trust of others and develop their own management style.

Leadership is a journey, with constant room for growth. When speaking with students or junior colleagues, I often find myself learning more from them than they could ever learn from me.

Empathy forces me to challenge my own preconceptions and grow personally, as well as professionally. As a leader, it keeps me grounded and allows me to make informed and impactful decisions.

Extending our hands (metaphorically, of course) and opening our hearts

I’m proud that Philadelphia is known as “the city of neighborhoods.” I’ve lived here all my life and know firsthand how much we can learn from our neighbors and the noble work they do. By nature, Philadelphians are gritty, driven and big-hearted, and in times like these, I see an abundance of empathy right in our backyard with ample opportunity to get involved:

  • Local business owners are banding together to support their employees during these difficult times, putting people first – whether that’s through flexible work schedules, compassionate leave polices or corporate philanthropic efforts like the PHL COVID-19
  • Organizations like Broad Street Ministry, John’s Hospice and Project Home are providing much-needed resources such as to-go meals and personal care items to our most at-risk populations.
  • People are finding creative ways to show gratitude for our region’s healthcare heroes. Fuel the Fight, in partnership with Frontline Foods, is raising money to buy meals from local restaurants to donate to those on the frontlines.

That’s empathy: the feeling that we’re all human, and we’ll all get through this together.

And right now, that makes me feel pretty good.