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Baby Yoda stands on rocks

Pop Culture Incorporated: Empathy, Leaders Need

Scroll through LinkedIn or flip open any busi­ness mag­a­zine and it seems like the cor­po­rate world col­lec­tive­ly just dis­cov­ered a brand-new con­cept: Empathy.

And it’s no won­der: If ever there was a time for lead­ers to flex their emo­tion­al-intel­li­gence mus­cles and try to under­stand what their col­leagues, cus­tomers and com­mu­ni­ties are going through, it’s now.

Peo­ple are strug­gling with pan­dem­ic fears, ques­tion­ing what’s impor­tant and nav­i­gat­ing uncer­tain­ty all day long in all aspects of their lives, includ­ing – and for some peo­ple, espe­cial­ly – at work. And as lead­ers, we need to be tuned into what they’re feeling.

I talked with PR Dai­ly this sum­mer about how empa­thy is a super pow­er for com­mu­ni­ca­tors that dri­ves and sup­ports every­thing from cor­po­rate cul­ture to client work. In fact, a new sur­vey from Cat­a­lyst found that empa­thy is, in fact, the most impor­tant lead­er­ship skill. When their lead­ers were empa­thet­ic, sur­vey respon­dents report­ed being more respect­ed, val­ued, inno­v­a­tive, engaged and able to nav­i­gate work-life balance.

The good news is we’ve been exposed to empa­thy on TV and in movies for decades, whether we noticed or not. Exam­ples of empa­thet­ic char­ac­ters in pop cul­ture abound, espe­cial­ly in sci­ence fic­tion: Dean­na Troi from Star Trek: The Next Gen­er­a­tion came from a whole plan­et of empaths, and could sense that a ran­dom Ando­ri­an was start­ing to get frus­trat­ed with the ser­vice at his neigh­bor­hood space-restau­rant while she stood on the deck of the Enter­prise. Lorne, the emer­ald-skinned and sassy demon from Angel, could read people’s auras – most­ly when they sang karaoke in his club. And Jedi Mas­ter Yoda from Star Wars was so tuned in to the Force, he could sense and con­nect with any­one, even in a galaxy far, far away.

But while it’s a con­ve­nient plot device, empa­thy is hard­ly an alien concept.

Often por­trayed as a “soft skill,” empa­thy is any­thing but. Being able to put your­self in some­one else’s shoes to under­stand their per­spec­tive has always been crit­i­cal to lead­ers’ abil­i­ty to lead.

We may not be able to sense people’s emo­tions by going into a Force-induced trance, but we can all stretch our empa­thet­ic mus­cles by lis­ten­ing more, reserv­ing judg­ment, using our imag­i­na­tion to appre­ci­ate what peo­ple may be going through and work­ing to under­stand how our cus­tomers and clients are impact­ed by our prod­uct or service.

Espe­cial­ly dur­ing the pan­dem­ic and as we hope­ful­ly begin to move into a post-cri­sis real­i­ty, prac­tic­ing empa­thy isn’t option­al. It’s vital — even more impor­tant than mak­ing the Kessel run in less than 12 par­secs. We must bold­ly go where many great lead­ers have gone before. Our teams and our busi­ness­es depend on it.

In the immor­tal words of a cer­tain lightsaber-wield­ing Mup­pet, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

You don’t need to be empa­thet­ic to under­stand that.

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