Looking Through Another's Eyes
Successful leaders are empathetic
“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eye for an instant?”— Henry David Thoreau, 1854
Empathy seems to be in short supply these days. The ability to say “I see you and understand what you’re going through,” and the willingness to attempt to think like others seems like a lost art.
Why do you suppose that is?
I have a theory myself, but before I share that with you, let’s take a quick look at what empathy is, how it’s different from sympathy, and why it’s a fundamental leadership trait.
The words empathy and sympathy both derive from the Greek root pathos, meaning “suffering” or “experience,” and is a technique in rhetoric (along with ethos and logos) as a way of evoking emotion.
The origin of sympathy goes back about 450 years, from the Latin sympathīa. Empathy came along in the early 1900s via psychology researchers and the Greek word empátheia, meaning “affection.”
Empathy is the ability to experience the feelings of another person. It goes beyond sympathy, which is caring and understanding for the suffering of others. Both words are used similarly and often interchangeably (incorrectly so).
As I was thinking about this, struggling to put into words what the difference is, an apt scenario presented itself.
Upstairs, my six year-old daughter was running in the hallway when she tripped and hit her head. I immediately rushed to her side, showing her that I felt badly for her (sympathy). As I comforted her, I told her I knew how much it hurt, because I’ve hit my head before (empathy).
The feeling of sympathy arises when we recognize another person’s suffering, as opposed to empathy, where the other person's pain or suffering is felt. You express sympathy but you share empathy.
Because of the shared feeling, empathy is deeper. That’s not to say that sympathy can’t be just as heartfelt. But empathy has the power to create a deeper and more meaningful connection, serving as a bridge for greater communication between individuals or between a leader and their team.
“Leadership is not so much about technique and methods as it is about opening the heart.” — Lance Secretan, 1998
The ability to create a deeper relationship with people is an essential element of leadership. After all, leaders aren’t creating things; they’re managing people. They’re helping create the next generation of leaders.
Mark Crowley joined the Timeless Leadership podcast as a guest to talk about what it means to lead from the heart:
Boss vs. Leader
You’ve likely seen the behaviors of command-and-control bosses (spoiler alert: they’re not leaders):