Emerge Stronger with Empathic Leadership

When I was a kid, my favourite toy cars were those with a pull-back motor in them. I used to love to point them in a particular direction, wind them up and let them go. The speed as the spring uncoiled was a rush! But what I really loved was when they went precisely where I aimed them. If they didn’t run true, I was less enamoured of them. I think we want the same thing of leaders: to be able to set out a vision and be abundantly clear with people how to ‘run true’ towards it.

In this Covid-19 crisis, many of the countries that seem to have responded best are led by women.

In Denmark, Mette Frederiksen acted promptly and has spoken plainly and directly to the country. While also finding time to post a video of herself joining in Denmark’s national lockdown sing-along while doing the dishes. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel explained how the very narrow margins of a 0.1 increase in the R rate would bring forward the month when Germany would reach its capacity to cope. And this lent legitimacy and authority to her call for a cautious approach.

In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has explicitly described her policy as ‘go hard and go early.’ But her combative language ends there. Indeed, she has emphasized kindness first and cajoled New Zealanders to look out for their neighbours and think of the greater good. This is of course entirely in keeping with her explicitly empathetic leadership style. The New Zealand prime minister later spoke directly to the country’s children to confirm that the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy were considered essential workers and so still able to go about their business, although they might be very busy with their own families. This style makes her approachable: a politician who seems to be a ‘fully paid-up member of the human race.’

All of these leaders are seeing bounces in their poll ratings as citizens respond favourably to their blend of authority and empathy. As with all leaders in this crisis, they are drawing on the reservoir of trust that exists between people and leaders. But while others may be running down those reserves of trust, they are replenishing theirs through their approach and manner.

A feminist view on economics

The writer Umair Haque has likened the experience of going through lockdown as a crash course in feminist economics. He says ‘we’re all “women” now,’ because the dominant economic model of our time is predicated on ‘possession and exploitation through violence and intimidation’ —and we have found that to be wanting. Now we realise that what really matters is that ‘we all need support and we must cooperate gently, not just compete viciously.’

This is what it is required of leaders today. To recognise that we are living through the ‘pilot show’ of a new economy. One that recognises we are interdependent and that we need to balance the demands of various stakeholders. This emergent economy also requires an empathetic form of leadership. Yes, we need leaders with vision and the ability to inspire people to set off in a particular direction. But as their businesses pivot to produce something people really need, they must also pause to consider their broader social purpose.

Plan now for a brighter future

Planning to have a positive impact starts with getting clear on your purpose—why you exist as an organisation. And with clarity around that, an empathetic leader invites colleagues into the planning process. Thinking of others forces a leader to reflect on the value of co-creation: yes, it might be simpler to sit down on a Sunday and bash out a plan and tell the team on the Monday that you’ve got one and let’s go. And yes, that degree of confidence might even be inspiring. But that approach pushes people along, rather than inviting them for the ride. They neither feel heard, nor do they buy in to those decisions. And those failings will undermine the potential success of the strategy.

Smart leaders express a degree of appropriate professional vulnerability and open up the planning process to more people. At Junxion our strategic planning process hinges around a pair of workshops. We deliberately encourage our clients to throw the net wide, inviting managers as well as C suite and even influential outsiders—clients or suppliers, or independent experts who can take their discussions in completely new directions.

Emerge stronger with clarity of vision

As our organisations seek to emerge stronger from this pandemic, leaders need to replenish that well of trust with their colleagues. For some of those colleagues, this will have been a brutal time both personally and professionally. They need to be heard and included.

Just as when I was a boy with my cars, going quickly is energising but it is much more satisfying when that speed is combined with a strong sense of direction. As a leader you will want to be pulling back on that spring now, building up the potential energy so your organisation can run true and fast as we come out of this pandemic. And that requires you to show empathy, include your people in your planning and be crystal clear on your expectations of them.

Let’s be audacious together…. So we all emerge stronger.


Adam Garfunkel is an owner and Managing Director at Junxion and advises companies on how to be clear on their purpose, set a plan for positive impact and then measure and report on the difference they have made. Reach him via [email protected].

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *