Post by Jeff Bristol

I had a mentor in my younger life who believed in me, encouraged me, and modeled strong and caring leadership. Looking back 20 years, I realized I learned two critical keys from him, whether I knew it at the time or not. This mentor taught me that, to be an effective leader, I had to not only contribute skills and experience, I needed to understand what it means to care deeply about people.

Every leader I speak with desires to positively influence people and outcomes (a noble goal). Is that you? Let’s, together, examine two important keys to effective and lasting leadership. A lack of one or the other could be holding you back from your potential to lead with the results you desire.

The common saying, “You can’t truly understand a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes,” gets at the idea of empathy. This does not mean, of course, that you have to physically borrow a person’s Converse high-tops and walk for exactly 5,280 feet. But you get the idea.

The definition of “empathy” reads:

“…the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another…” (emphasis mine)

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is to do the willing work of learning what a person is going through—what a person has experienced—and imagining what it might feel like to you to be in their place.

Jayson M. Boyers, in his article, “Why Empathy is the Force that Moves Business Forward,” says, “…the reality is that for business leaders to experience success, they need to not just see or hear the activity around them, but also relate to the people they serve.” Empathy is not optional as a leader, in business or otherwise.

Have you noticed that we often judge other people by their actions but we judge ourselves by our intentions? (Stop right here and think about this!) This should be a red flag because it demonstrates a lack of empathy. It’s easy to tell someone what to do (or where to go) from within your own shoes—it’s harder to take the time and energy to really try to understand what is behind an employee’s struggles, a boss’s expectations, a customer’s demands, a manager’s fears, or a child’s hopes.

Business leaders talk a lot about influence. It could be argued that influence is the definition of leadership. But, you don’t have to be the boss to carry authority. Almost everyone has some type of authority—think about what you do every day to contribute to society, your workplace, and your family. These roles carry a certain amount of authority (even if you’re not in a direct management type of role). The dictionary defines “Authority” as, “power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior.”

If you have a job, you were hired for the skills and experience you bring to the company. You have authority based on these skills. Think about it—the job you hold today is ultimately to serve customers—whether you actually speak with them directly or the work you do serves them indirectly. The ways you contribute influences people’s thoughts, opinions, and behaviors. If you have not considered the authority that you hold, that might be a great place to start.

At Rocket Jones, we have some team members who do hard and important work but rarely communicate directly with the customer. However, these team members have a dramatic impact on our customers, our company, and our profits because of the skills and influence they bring to our projects (and that impacts the way we hire). Understanding this authority is important all the way through our team.

Dump Dead Weight!
Have you met someone who demonstrates little to no authority or empathy? This person is uncaring and contributes very little value. In fact, this person can put a huge drain on an otherwise productive team. With no skill or knowledge and with no concern for the customer, this person is not just dead weight that others have to carry—this person is actually pulling in the wrong direction. Managers, if you have these people on your team, stop reading this and go get rid of them. I’m not kidding. Your business will either fail or, at the very least, you will continue to struggle with these people on board. Small business owners—you can not afford to ignore this truth.

More Than a Feeling
A more common scenario is a person who has either empathy OR authority but not both. A merely empathetic person feels for others but does not bring strength to the team with the ability or willingness to influence for positive change. A merely empathetic employee may care about the customer and their problem but does not have anything to offer as a solution. There’s nothing wrong with being a caring person. The world can use some more empathy. However, these are not the people you want to hire to work for you. It takes contribution and skill from every member of the team to deliver creative solutions, to move a project along, and to grow a business. What about you? Have you allowed the grass to grow under your feet when it comes to what you are able to contribute? Have you let technology and change stagnate you? What would it look like for you grow in this area?

A Jerk in a China Shop
On the other side of the coin is the team member who carries plenty of authority (experience, knowledge, or skill) but has not cultivated the ability to care (vicariously experience another person’s pain or struggle). I work with a lot of super smart people—way smarter than me (not kidding). Working with highly technical people is often a challenge. This is because some rely heavily on their skills or intellect and then struggle to be effective on teams and with clients because they are unaware of the importance of developing what comes less naturally to them—empathy.

You’ve experienced this. The doctor who is highly trained and respected in her field but doesn’t take the time to help you understand what is going on with your symptoms. The tech support guy who is more interested in reading from the script than trying to understand your personal frustration. The hotel staff who won’t let you check-in to your room 10 minutes before 2:00pm because of “company policy.” Right isn’t always right.

What does it take to be the best?
The strongest companies, the best leaders, and the most effective team players are the few who have cultivated both empathy and authority. This goes for inside the workplace and outside.

Do you want to earn respect as a leader? Empathy and authority.

Do you want to motivate an employee? Empathy and authority.

Do you want to increase sales (and profits)? Empathy and authority.

Do you want to be a better spouse, mother, father, friend? Empathy and authority.

Leaders with empathy and authority show they care AND they contribute to the cause, help solve real problems, and influence positive change.

My mentor modeled these principles to me when I was a young leader. Fast forward to today—I recently celebrated my 50th birthday. While I’ve made more than my share of mistakes over the years, I sincerely hope the people I lead are learning these keys from me.

Everyone one of us can apply this today. Look around and take a mental inventory of the people around you. Note the people who are following you. These are the people who need your empathy and your authority. They need it NOW. It’s time for us to step-up to the plate and become the powerful leaders our teams need us to be.

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