Empathy - with a great leadership superpower comes great responsibility
Updated: Jun 24
An edited version of this post was originally published on UpJourney as part of the article How To Deal With Being an Empath which has perspectives on empathy from psychotherapists, clinicians, clinical social workers, coaches and... me!
As an empath, I love that this piece is called “how to deal...”. When you have an ability that you can’t quite explain to see into someone else’s heart and mind, it can be exhausting. I wouldn't say that I feel what others feel, or that I can read their minds exactly, but sometimes, in some circumstances, it feels pretty close.
We’re only built to handle our own extremes of emotion. Experiencing someone else’s can sometimes be too much to bear. One of the most impactful moments of my career was leading a team through a business crisis. It's hard to describe the how vividly I felt the anxiety of the people around me, sometimes so intensely that I couldn't tell where my own finished, and others' began.
Everyone can (and should) learn to stop and take the time to think how it feels to be in someone else's shoes. But being a true empath isn't a choice, it's something structural in your brain to do with the number of active mirror neurons you have. The biochemistry is beyond me to explain in any detail, I just know that empaths sometimes face an uphill struggle to gain distance from the emotion around them, and stay focused on being objective. Something that seems extra-hard during times of crisis, but isn't optional. Leaders sometimes have to make tough decisions, that's the job.
There's also a watch out for those, like me, who help people find their own way through minefields. If you are an intuitive person with an empathetic streak, you can feel as if you recognise a situation as something you've been through exactly yourself. But no two situations are the same, so you need to constantly check yourself. Just because for the same feeling, the answer was X for you, it doesn't follow at all that X will be the answer for someone else.
If it sounds like I'm describing empathy as a disability... NO! It’s the opposite, it’s a superpower! I once told someone that leadership isn’t complicated. Just think how you would feel in your employees’ shoes - what fears you’d have about the workplace, what expectations for your career, what hopes for your future, what needs for recognition and encouragement - and then behave as you would want to be treated. She looked at me like I was talking a foreign language. It was then I realised that... maybe not everyone can do that automatically? Oh.
I have led teams of people through huge change - mergers, disposals, reorgs, political and social crises, and even a pandemic - using my empathy as a guiding principle. What would I need to hear if I were them? What would I want to know? What would keep me up at night? Would I want the objective background about corporate ambitions, or a simple recognition that change is hard, but someone was there on my side to help me through it? The answer of course is both, either one or something else, depending on where the person starts from.
Now I use my empathy to coach clients meeting them where they are, and help them get in touch with their own instincts in their leadership roles. You could say empathy is my professional life! The key that I have found to using my emapthy in a healthy way, as a way to connect, not a way to be subsumed, is to create boundaries.
You may understand how someone else feels, but that doesn’t mean that you have to feel it with them.
Remind yourself whose emotions you are responsible for, and where that responsibility stops. Learn to recognise when the balance has tipped, and know your signals that it’s time to take a step back.
Remind yourself that the way we truly learn is to go through something, not be protected from it. There are times when the best thing to do is the hardest, to understand but remain an outsider to the problem. Empathy on tap. Wouldn’t that be something that could change the world?