Why Are Kindness And Empathy Key Components Of Optimal Leadership?

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Interesting short article by journalist Karoline Gore. Highlights the importance of multi- and reactive skills in leaders. It also draws a similar conclusions to Google’s research into what makes the perfect team, with ‘people are nice to each other’ as one key distinguishing feature of high-performing teams. Sometimes simple conclusions are the ones that take longest to reach. Also interesting to speculate whether her conclusions would work across cultures. How about cultures where kindness and empathy could be considered weaknesses in a leader? Or where open communication is considered a negative thing?

Michael Gates


Outstanding leaders differ from their peers in one important aspect, as noted in the groundbreaking book Executive EQ: Emotional Intelligence in Leadership and Organisations. They create good relationships with their employees, since they understand that “emotional relationships are the lifeblood of any business.” Other researchers (Dansereau et al, 1995) agree that to be viewed as an authentic leader, a boss or manager must make workers feel valued and understood, and the key to instilling these emotions, is empathy. When leaders put themselves into their employees’ shoes, they are perceived as having greater integrity and they gain their staff’s trust. Indeed, it is almost impossible to excite, inspire, and lead others in one specific direction, if they feel the divide that ensues when leaders are cold, neglectful, mistrustful of staff, or simply disinterested in building real, valuable relationships.

Transactional vs Transformational Leadership

Keskes (2014) notes that the two main leadership styles – transactional and transformational – produce very different results. Transactional leadership involves the use of rewards (such as a monetary reward), while transformational leadership emphasizes the intangible (personal growth, self-esteem, etc.). Transformation occurs when leaders inspire employees to think beyond their personal interests. When company values, goals, and ideals come to the forefront, teams can work in a unified fashion for the good of the team. Rafferty and Griffin (2004) identified key elements of transformational leadership that involve kindness and empathy. These elements include support for employees (taking into account of each employee’s individual needs and circumstances); empathetic communication (which taps into employees’ existing thoughts and emotions); and personal recognition (praising and acknowledging good work). Of course, good leaders can include elements of both leadership styles in their own. That is, although they lay importance on empathy, kindness, and support, material rewards such as salary improvements and the adoption of flexible work practices can also be highly motivational for staff.

Leadership Requires Connection

In order to stimulate employees intellectually, leaders have to ensure that employees understand the problems, goals, and direction they wish to take the company in. True understanding is incompatible with an authoritarian leadership style. Understanding is a two-way street. Employees need to be in an open, serene state of mind. They need to feel understood by their mentors and leaders before they are able and willing to thin beyond their own interests.

Kindness Produces Results

Research has shown that leaders who are empathic boost key outcomes in their employees such as job satisfaction, creativity, and a greater willingness to ‘go beyond the expected’ to achieve company goals. Because good leaders are keen on helping employees grow, the results are reaped not only by staff, but also by the company itself. A 2019 study undertaken at the University of East Anglia found that when leaders give due importance to aspects such as career progression, the likelihood of employees leaving the company drops significantly. The same study showed that high employee satisfaction is linked to better profitability and an improved customer experience. The researchers stated that for satisfaction to exist, open communication between staff and leaders was key. Leaders should enable staff to express their opinions, form part of policy or product/service strategies, and promote work-life balance.

Leaders wishing to take their company to new heights should start ground-up. Fostering an atmosphere in which open communication, staff feedback, and a genuine interest in career progression and staff advancement are encouraged, boosts job satisfaction. This in turn leads to lower turnover rates, and the creation of a highly experienced team with an authentic commitment to their employers and their clients.

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