Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Heart of Effective Leadership

How empathy can make you a successful leader.

A guest post by Greg Markway, Ph.D.

Back in the 1950’s Carl Rogers identified three characteristics that psychotherapists should possess: warmth, genuineness, and empathy. Considerable research supported Rogers’ idea. Regardless of the therapeutic orientation of the therapist, these three variables facilitated clients making positive changes. Building a positive relationship with the client has been viewed as an important part of effective psychotherapy. Over time, this concept has been included in, and adapted for, a variety of therapeutic approaches.

How does this relate to effective leadership?

Many times, people thrust into leadership roles have asked themselves, “What have I gotten myself into?” I certainly had this question after one day in my first leadership position. Then I read a quote from Socrates, a pretty smart guy:

“To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.”

Of course, Socrates also was sentenced to death. Sometimes, being smart is not enough, and things do not end well.

Ray Williams, a leadership expert, cites some startling statistics: 30% of Fortune 500 company CEO’s last less than three years, with a significant percentage failing within the first 18 months. He also notes that the most common traits related to failure are hubris, ego, and a lack of emotional intelligence.

In a sense, failed leaders can be said to lack warmth, genuineness, and empathy. This may sound rather “touchy-feely” for consideration as leadership advice, but let’s look at how “touchy-feely” approaches have been proven to be important in other fields.

  • Research shows that, when oncologists express empathy, it can go a long way toward helping people with cancer understand their treatment, stick with it, cope better, and maybe even fare better medically.
  • In a study of patients who had the common cold, those patients who gave their clinician a perfect empathy score reported that their colds were less severe and lasted fewer days than patients who gave their clinicians less-than-perfect empathy scores. In addition to their self-report of feeling better, these patients also showed a higher change in both nasal neutrophils and the cytokine, IL-8.
  • In a study of 710 cancer patients in Germany, physician empathy was positively associated with improvement in patient-reported outcomes of depression and quality of life.
  • In a study of over 20,000 patients with diabetes mellitus, researchers found that patients of physicians with high empathy scores had a significantly lower rate of acute metabolic complications.
  • In a study of almost 900 diabetic patients, researchers found that patients of physicians with high empathy scores were significantly more likely to have good control of hemoglobin A1c and good LDL-C control.
  • In a study of 185 patients being treated with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), therapeutic empathy had a “moderate-to-large causal effect on recovery from depression.”

If an empathetic therapist or physician can increase the likelihood of positive outcomes, could not an empathetic leader be effective in changing an organization?

How can leaders be more effective?

  1. By listening to staff. When a leader seeks input from various levels within an organization, this helps staff feel valued.
  2. By reflecting back to staff what has been said.
  3. By using positive communication whenever possible. By acknowledging individual and group accomplishments, a leader builds a “positive balance” in the “emotional bank account” of staff, thus helping everyone feel more invested in the organization.

Let me give one practical example from my own experience as a “line staff” person at a hospital. Our outpatient services were important to our community, but also a financial drain on the hospital. A new leader was hired for our department. In her first presentation to staff, she listed a number of ideas she had for improving the bottom line while also maintaining services. We had tried all of her ideas before without success.

I emailed her and politely suggested that she needed some background. As gently as I could, I told her that I didn’t think her ideas would work. She responded by inviting me to lunch, where she listened to me and acknowledged the validity of my comments. Only then did she say that she has some plans to implement her ideas in new ways. She then asked, “Will you keep an open mind as long as I remain open to your feedback?”

I felt heard, valued and respected. She demonstrated warmth, genuineness and empathy by caring about me and what I had to say, by acknowledging my point of view, and by requesting my continued input. As a result, I trusted her and felt more loyal to her and the organization. And, over time, she proved that my trust was well-placed.

For many leaders, it may feel very risky to lead with empathy. They may view leaders as strong personalities who must always be in command—sort of like General Patton in World War II. However, the United States military recognizes the importance of empathy as a leadership quality:

"To lead successfully, a person must demonstrate two active, essential, interrelated traits: expertise and empathy. In my experience, both of these traits can be deliberately and systematically cultivated; this personal devel­opment is the first important building block of leadership."

—William G. Pagonis, Leadership in a Combat Zone

photo: CanStockPhoto

Greg Markway, Ph.D. is Director of Forensic Services at the Department of Mental Health. He was previously the Chief of Mental Health Services for the Department of Corrections, both in the State of Missouri. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.

You can connect with Barbara Markway, Ph.D. on Facebook.