When you ask people to list the attributes of good leaders you get lots of nice things like Trust, Integrity, good communication and Vision.

What you don’t often get towards the top of the list is top notch ’empathy’.

You don’t get often enough ‘understands what I worry about when I’m not here’.

I’m not talking about leaders being able to name your 3 kids. That’s not empathy.

I’m talking about having some form of appreciation of what you have to do to juggle work and 3 kids.

Let me give you an example.

The first time that I had to manage someone who was pregnant I was in my early twenties with no children. I dutifully did all the ‘by the book’ things a manager should do to balance conversations about the individual (and how they were feeling) and what needed to be done for the company. I remember someone telling me the key to managing pregnant women is to understand ‘it’s not an illness’.

That’s true, but it is an almighty change and a physical and mental challenge.

My daughter is now 4. I can give you a list of some of the things I didn’t understand or empathise with earlier in my career

– the sleepless nights (due to how uncomfortable it is to have a giant bump preventing you getting comfortable)
– the tiredness and the emotional strain (all wrapped into one)
– the concern in case anything goes wrong
– the fatigue and sore feet and sore back
– having to cope with a feckless husband who is learning all this stuff more slowly than you are
– having to cope with a feckless male boss in his 20’s asking how you are but not being able to empathise

It’s the same with bereavement, illness and other life events. They are hard to understand unless you’ve been close to them or experienced directly. I’ve got better at managing people as I’ve experienced more. That isn’t a shocker – but how bad you can be if you just go by the book is worth reflecting on.

Understanding makes all the difference to the individual.

When people talk about ‘managing the whole person’ don’t think you have it licked because you can name the children of all the people in your team.

Empathy is more than that. Caring is more than that. Leading is more than that.


Image for the quote is courtesy of Mark Ellis

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