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BW Businessworld

Leading With Empathy

Lack of Empathy in leadership unhinges the leader from the people he leads. On the other hand, when leaders embrace empathy as a core virtue, the results are dramatic, be that in politics or business.

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With COVID-19 raging across countries, the world is witnessing a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions.  Compounding the impact, the disease has also become the source of the biggest economic crisis of all times in history. India seems particularly ill-equipped to handle the situation given the density of population, exacerbated by inadequate healthcare and lack of social security. Leaders, whether in government or businesses, are being tested for their leadership skills and importantly, for their sensitivity quotient.

Leadership in business as we know is based on several key principles. In these exceptional times, the conventional pursuit of vision, growth and profit is taking a backseat and the one virtue that is most required, is empathy. The wide-ranging meaning of empathy is our ability to understand feelings and distress faced by another person. However, what does empathy translate into, where leaders are concerned?  Empathy and compassion by leaders in all areas of life, have very often been the bedrock of outcomes that changed the course of nations and organisations. Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership that brought freedom to India was borne out of his empathy for the poor and marginalised in India at that time.

The current crisis that has engulfed the country is the plight of nearly 120mn citizens who have lost jobs and using a multiplier of family members affected for every job lost, is frightening. The suffering of the migrant workers is only comparable to a similar migration that ensued during partition, in 1947. Our leaders in the government and business would need to display extraordinary empathy to alleviate the suffering. Can our leaders demonstrate the courage and empathy to secure livelihood for people who have lost jobs? Will the migrant workers be provided with shelter and safety as they would return from their villages? Clearly, a stark economic sense would need to take a backseat.

Another example that reinforces my belief in the value, empathy, got tested recently in the case of George Floyd, an African American who lost his life to brutal police action in the United States. His death sparked a movement ‘Black Lives Matter’ that became a super-spreader across the world with racism at the epicentre. The catalyst of this crisis is the perceived lack of empathy in leadership. This impression could prove costly to the incumbent President in his race and pursuit of his re-election.

Many business leaders have truly embodied empathy as an integral part of their leadership. One such great example is that of Indian-born, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft Corporation. During the journey of his leadership, the market capitalisation of Microsoft has risen from USD 320bn to now nearly USD 1.50tn, an astonishing multiplier of nearly 5, in 6 years.  He maintains, that he puts empathy at the centre of everything he pursues – from new product launches, new markets, to employees, customers and partners his company would work with. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Inc. recommends measurement of impact on humanity, the lives touched, and people served, not in ‘likes’ and popularity. He further believes that while people will try to convince that empathy should be kept out of leadership, he warns against accepting this false premise.

Lack of Empathy in leadership unhinges the leader from the people he leads. On the other hand, when leaders embrace empathy as a core virtue, the results are dramatic, be that in politics or business.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Milind Kothari .

The author is Managing Partner, BDO in India

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