John C. Maxwell: How to Be an Empathetic Leader

UPDATED: December 17, 2014
PUBLISHED: December 17, 2014

Have you ever watched the reality show Undercover Boss on CBS? It’s based on a fascinating premise.

In each episode, a high-ranking executive or CEO goes undercover as an entry-level employee in his own company. The executives alter their appearances, develop fictional back stories and spend one week experiencing different jobs within their companies. By the end of each episode, the CEO has seen the business through the eyes of the employees and gains a better understanding of how to improve it.

Stephen Cloobeck, CEO of Diamond Resorts International, has gone undercover multiple times. Known for his accessibility, Cloobeck regularly drops in for surprise visits at his properties, so he was at first unsure whether his made-for-TV disguise would work. It did, and what he found surprised him. Immediately he noticed that several employees were not following company policies, and others were untrained and ill-equipped. As a result, they worked inefficiently and neglected to provide the level of customer service that Cloobeck expects.

In an interview after the show, journalist Susan Kime asked Cloobeck what the experience taught him. “I learned two really important things,” he responded. “First, my worldview must expand to move beyond the brick-and-mortar business. I realized also that it must be consistently scalable enough to include the needs and wants of the guests and all of our team members. We use The Meaning of Yes as our motto. My being undercover helped better define how we can say yes more often and with the most profound results. In addition, I realized that my work is a way of life; it is a calling that goes far beyond the job description.”

My good friend Michael Hyatt, a leadership expert and former CEO of Thomas Nelson publishers, says, “If you are going to be an effective leader, you must be able to enter your followers’ world. In fact, if you are going to influence anyone or anything—your employees, a client, your spouse or even your kids—you are going to have to get really good at incarnational leadership.”

Incarnational leadership is a complex term for a simple concept: Good leaders must get out of their own shoes and put on someone else’s. It’s about empathy, the understanding of another person’s thoughts and feelings without personally experiencing them. It is important to understand where people are coming from emotionally because their feelings have a direct impact on their behavior and results.

In a Harvard Business Review article, Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., suggests three reasons why we need to show more empathy at work: the increasing use of teams, the rapid pace of globalization and the growing need to retain talent.

Goleman explains, “If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.” Goleman is absolutely right.

Empathetic leaders must have the humility to set aside an attitude of, “I know more than you,” or pride that says, “I don’t have to listen to you.” Only then can they learn from anyone and everyone on their team. This is what I have found about empathy: It’s difficult to develop when you don’t try to get outside of yourself and see things from someone else’s perspective.

I have to be more interested in my team than I am in me. I have to be more interested in learning about them than I am in telling them about me. I have to be open and willing to suspend judgment so that people can be authentic and honest.

Become a More Empathetic Leader

Be of your people, not above them.

Work alongside your team on occasion. What would improve the workflow? How could you improve working conditions and increase productivity? Look for opportunities to make valuable changes.

Ask questions.

Pay attention to the “why” behind what people say and do. Are your team members trained properly? Do they have the appropriate support and resources to be successful? When you notice a problem or a mistake, don’t address the symptom. Dig in and find the root cause.

Connect with emotion.

Has an employee ever done something that left you wondering, What in the heck was he thinking? Sometimes it is hard to relate to what someone else is going through. The truth is, you may not understand what your team member is thinking or experiencing, so focus on connecting with the emotion. Find out what he or she is feeling and then think back to a time when you have felt the same way. For instance, what were you thinking or feeling in your first year of leadership? What were your biggest fears or challenges? When have you felt threatened or insecure in your position? You are more likely to understand underlying issues if you put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

Give yourself an empathy test this week.

As you go about your week, plan to analyze at least two conversations you have with people on your team and identify the needs that are at the heart of their issues, ideas or comments. According to author and motivational speaker Tony Robbins, people are driven by one or more of the six basic human needs listed below.

1. Certainty: assurance you can avoid pain and gain pleasure.
2. Variety: regular exposure to the unknown, change and new stimuli.
3. Significance: feeling unique, important, special or needed.
4. Connection: a strong feeling of union with someone or something.
5. Growth: an expansion of capacity or understating.
6. Contribution: a sense of service and focus on helping, giving to and supporting others.

Use your new insight into their needs to lead and influence them more effectively.

Ultimately, organizational success is the result of personal success—one employee at a time. I challenge you to take the time to intentionally connect and empathize with your team members at a deeper level.

Remember, you can’t walk in someone else’s shoes if you never get out of your chair. 

Check out 6 strategies for extraordinary leadership, all of which focus on developing other people’s potential.