Blog April 2020

Empathetic Leadership


Our world certainly has changed. While we all experience the same thing at the same time, each person’s reaction is different. There is one core leadership skill that will help now and in the years to come - empathy! 

What exactly is empathy? It is the skill of understanding and sharing in the feelings of another person. Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s experience, perspective and feelings. It is commonly described as the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. But make sure you are assessing how they would feel in their shoes, not how you would feel in their shoes. This nuance is significant. Of the five traits of a great leader (Empathy, Self-awareness, Honesty, Decisiveness, and Optimism), empathy is the most important. 

For our volunteer board members, empathy is crucial. Each person comes from a different professional culture. The most successful boards are able to harmonize their differing backgrounds to achieve the goals and fulfill the mission of their association. Without empathy, you can’t build your board or nurture a new generation of leaders. It will be challenging to grow membership or elicit loyalty. 

From a business standpoint, empathy allows you to predict the effects your decisions and actions will have on core audiences, and to strategize accordingly.  Empathy is also essential in negotiations and sales. The relationship with business partners and sponsors is essential to the financial health of associations. Empathy allows you to know your target’s desires and what risks they are, or aren’t, willing to take. 

There is a significant business cost when leaders lack empathy. Empathic workplaces tend to achieve stronger collaboration, less stress, greater morale, and their employees bounce back more quickly from difficult moments; while workplaces that lack empathy do not.

Being more empathic can be learned! The capacity for empathy is an innate human trait, and like all of these, there is a spectrum of strength and weakness. Some people are more naturally gifted at sensing other peoples’ feelings, perspectives, and experiences, while others are not. Reflect on your own experiences – are you able to relate to other people’s personal experiences, without interjecting your own perspectives? 

If empathetic leadership does not come naturally, there are strategies you can learn. Challenge yourself to think about the people who will be affected by a decision and what your action, or your association’s action, will mean to them. Remember to not just recognize but to care about that impact on others. This doesn’t mean making them happy, nor does it take away from making firm decisions. It is tool that helps you to better understand the human environment that exists within your association’s operations.  

To close, being an empathic leader will inspire loyalty, make for improved communications, boost productivity, and fuel collaboration, Listen, be present and genuinely have interest and you will see your empathy level start to soar. 


Karen Regan, CMP, MBA, is a Meeting Planner at McKenna Management, Inc., an association management company based in Westford, Massachusetts.