The Most Important Leadership Skill For Our Times & Five Ways to Enhance It

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What do you think the most important leadership skill is for our times?

We’ve just been through one of the toughest years of our lives personally and professionally.

  • We’ve been told to stay at home or risk our own lives and the lives of others
  • We’ve been told to avoid social contact and to socialise through a screen
  • We’ve been told to work from home (or live at work) and not go to the office

We’ve been living in this weird parallel universe in our own little bubbles and I sense many of us have become institutionalised in our own homes.

And yet our work and home lives have become deeply intertwined. We can no longer leave our home life at the door because the door is the same door.

Now, slowly but surely, the message is changing.  The pressure is increasing to come out from under our protective shells, to venture out into that big bad world again and, for many, to start going back into work by way of public transport.

Yet each of us has been on our own journey; each of us has endured different personal challenges and each of us has responded to the situation differently.

Indeed, in Microsoft’s latest Work Trend Index, a poll of over 30,000 people in 31 countries, 61% of leaders said they were thriving right now versus only 37% of workers – a huge disconnect.

How as a leader can you bridge that gap?  How can you avoid projecting your own experience and hence current mental capacity onto your team members?

By displaying the most important leadership skill right now – EMPATHY.

Why is Empathy So Important Right Now?

Empathy has always been a hugely important leadership skill – and often an overlooked one.

Empathy enables leaders to:

  • Understand what an individual is going through
  • Contextualise behaviour and performance
  • Avoid leaping to judgement and blame
  • Diagnose the root cause of any behaviour
  • Work with the individual to help and support them in moving forward

In challenging times such as these, it’s vital that you, as a leader, check in with your team regularly, create a climate of trust where people feel comfortable discussing personal and professional matters with you, can handle strong emotions shown by others without being drawn into them, understand where your people are in terms of their journey back to the new normal and can co-create a bespoke solution that works best for the individual, team and company.

Not an easy task, but a hugely important one, especially now.

What Recent Research Tells Us

In fact, in a recent research survey undertaken by Gartner HR Practice and involving over 3,000 knowledge workers and their managers:

  • 85% of HR leaders said that empathy was an even more important leadership skill now than it was pre the pandemic
  • Leaders with a high level of empathy were shown to have 3x the impact on their employees’ performance compared with those with low levels
  • Employees at organisations where managers showed a high level of empathy were twice as likely to say their working environment was an inclusive one

Further proof, if we needed it, of the importance of enhancing your empathy skills as a leader.

So how can you go about it?

Five Top Tips for Enhancing Empathy

Here are five top tips that my clients have found extremely helpful over the years:

Tip #1. Set your intention to be empathic

Before getting on a call or going into a meeting with a person, set your intention to be empathic.

Setting your intention or determining how you are going to behave before any interaction can be hugely powerful.

It’s a form of what psychologists call future-pacing – imagining and therefore mentally rehearsing a desired state.

Tip #2. Be curious, not critical

Curiosity is a potent emotion.  It activates the seeking system in your brain. It therefore stimulates a desire to learn and to understand, making you more open to new information, new ideas and new ways of seeing things.

Moreover, the best way to satisfy that curiosity is to ask open questions.  Open questions are questions that cannot be answered with a yes or no.  Questions that encourage respondents to open up and to dig deeper for their responses increasing their self-awareness and your ability to put yourself in their shoes.

Tip #3. Listen without judgement

Carl Rogers, an American humanistic psychologist, calls one of the key aspects of empathy unconditional positive regard i.e. non-judgement.

Listening without judgement means being fully present, not having any preconceptions about the person or situation and not making assumptions about the outcome or their answers.

Simply listening to understand what is going on in the person’s head and to connect with what is going on in their heart.

Tip #4. Separate behaviour from identity

If you sense you are moving into judgement mode, a brilliant strategy I learnt from NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) many years ago is to separate out behaviour from identity.

Typically, when we judge a person we label them (at identity level) e.g. they are weak, they are lazy, they are stupid and so on.

Separating behaviour from identity means acknowledging that their current behaviour or response does not equate to the whole person.  It is not who they are, but simply a behaviour they are displaying which you are choosing to label as such.

Tip #5. Remember we’re all human

Last but not least, this tip is super simple but can be really helpful.

Sometimes when you’re under pressure yourself as a leader, you can easily slip into what I call taskmaster mode.  Overly focussed on the task as opposed to the relationship and adopting the mantle of master vs servant.  But it is typically counter-productive.

The truth is that we are all human.  We all have our strengths, our weaknesses, our little foibles, our good and bad days.

Sometimes, and especially in times like these, we need to cut people some slack and empathy is the key.


Empathy has, in my view, always been one of the most important leadership skills and one of the most challenging to perform well.  However, right now it is more important than ever.

The next few months will be critical in forging a path that works for everyone in creating a new normal – in most instances hybrid working with some days in the office and some days working from home.  It will be yet more change on top of a challenging year and a dramatic shift from what people have been used to, whether they have liked it or not.

Being able to empathise with different peoples’ experiences over the past year, understanding how they have coped mentally and hence what their mental capacity is right now and sensing how they are feeling about the forthcoming changes in their lives will be critical to the mental wellbeing of your people and ultimately the performance of your teams and organisations as you move out of lockdown.


If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this article, please email theresa@thecoachingproject.co.uk or call Theresa on +44 (0)7740 030677 to discuss your needs.

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