How you can be a successful leader when you’re ‘low on empathy’

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I have known Serina for a few years now. In fact, I first met her when she was a student of mine in a master’s program I was teaching in the Business School at UNSW. We have kept in contact since she graduated, and we catch up every few months and I would say that whether she realises it or not, I have become a bit of a mentor (as opposed to coach) when it comes to her development. There is definitely a difference – but that’s probably the subject of another post. 

We had dinner a few weeks ago and she asked me whether I thought a leader could be successful if they are ‘low on empathy’. 

I thought this was a great question, so much so that a few days later, when I was facilitating a leadership development workshop, I posed the same question to the participants. 

The group was clearly divided, so I ended up turning the discussion into a spontaneous activity where I had them stand at different ends of the room depending on what they thought. 

On one side were those who were adamant that empathy is one of the most essential traits in leadership today – particularly with all the uncertainty and anxiety employees have faced coming out of the last few years.  

The group defined empathy as the ability to take into consideration the feelings of others (which also plays a huge role in developing others). It’s also about not simply understanding the needs of individual team members but respecting them without casting judgment.  

Empathy refers to a leader’s ability to control their impulses, and take a genuine interest in, and truly understand their team members and what makes each person unique.  

On the other side of the room stood the group for whom empathy didn’t exactly appear on their list of core traits that might help contribute to a leader’s success. 

With this group, we tossed around a few fictional movie characters like Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) in The Devil Wears Prada, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in Wall Street, Colonel Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) in A Few Good Men, who, whilst clearly successful leaders, didn’t exactly ooze empathy. 

We’ve probably all had managers who, upon reflection, were anything but empathetic. 

One of my very first bosses had absolutely no qualms about yelling at people from his office or publicly humiliating us in team meetings. Whilst to me (as a team member) that strategy was an epic failure (and there were even times when I dreaded our catch ups), he ended up being promoted and climbing the ranks rapidly, so there were clearly those higher up that considered his approach worthy of respect and recognition. 

But I digress. 

Towards the end of the workshop activity, I asked the leaders to move across the room depending on whether their opinions had changed during course of the group discussion, and it was very interesting to observe whose ideas had shifted after listening to their colleagues. 

During the lunch break one leader approached me privately and let me know that he has ADHD, isn’t the best listener, can appear easily distracted, and confessed to lacking empathy but still desperately wanted to lead people. He asked me whether I thought he was on the wrong path or in the wrong job and went so far as to ask if I thought he should quit. 

Absolutely not! 

While empathy can be extremely helpful for building strong relationships with team members and understanding their needs and concerns, it’s certainly not the only factor that determines a leader’s success. 

Empathy isn’t one of the most common traits to come naturally to most leaders. And simply telling a leader to “try to be more empathetic” will often result in them ‘faking it’ until the proverbial mask falls off. That isn’t good for anyone. 

Can a leader who is low on empathy use other strengths to build great relationships while still being true to themselves? 

Absolutely. 

After all, not every leader is comfortable demonstrating a level of curiosity, creating a safe space for their team members, showing their vulnerability, placing an emphasis on transparent communication, or deeply listening without casting judgment. However, they can still certainly inspire loyalty, appreciation, trust, and long-term commitment from their team members.  

Empathy certainly isn’t the only trait that determines someone’s ability to lead effectively.

Many leaders have other strengths that allow them to succeed despite struggling with or having so-called lower levels of empathy. 

Even if a leader doesn’t naturally feel empathetic towards others, regularly soliciting feedback from team members can help a leader better understand their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as the needs and concerns of their team. This can help them make better decisions and, in turn, build stronger relationships. 

A leader who empowers their team members by giving them autonomy and trusting them to make decisions can also build stronger relationships based on mutual respect. By encouraging team members to take ownership of their work and to contribute to the team’s success, a ‘low empathy’ leader can still create a sense of shared purpose and build trust while creating a culture of collaboration and achievement. 

Data can also help a leader make objective decisions and communicate more effectively. Whether data-driven, data-informed, or data-inspired, by relying on data and facts, a leader can build their credibility and reduce the impact of their own biases and emotions. 

Even leaders who are low on empathy but who hold themselves and their team members accountable for their actions can build trust by showing that they take responsibility for their decisions and outcomes. When a leader takes ownership of their mistakes and works to turn things around, team members will be more likely to trust them. 

And finally, as I pointed out to both the group of leaders in their workshop, as well as to Serina when she posed her initial question, leaders who are able to adapt to changing circumstances and navigate challenges and uncertainty can build trust by proving they are open to new ideas and willing to change course when necessary which, in turn, will make up for their own (often perceived) lack of empathy. 

Remember hellomonday provides coaching and support to every leader, prioritising development initiatives that result in long-term sustained learning and change, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, perhaps even helping leaders become more empathetic in how they approach what they do.  

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