All Articles Leadership Management Great leadership occurs in moments of empathy and caring

Great leadership occurs in moments of empathy and caring

When a team and its leader aren't connecting, the way forward starts with the leader's empathy.

7 min read


Great leadership occurs in moments of empathy and caring


Next to religion and politics, leadership is one of the most oft-discussed and written about topics of humanity. We celebrate and read about great leaders in the hope of bottling and sharing their secret formulas for success.

Yet, the formula for great leadership — like the Philosopher’s Stone of alchemical lore — remains elusive, situational, and stubbornly resistant to easy emulation. However, you can hack great leadership in moments. Here’s how.

First, your bias to action isn’t the answer

Earlier in my leadership career, I equated effective leadership with driving results. The “driving” part ultimately proved short-sighted and wrong. For a while, individuals on my teams reveled in the excitement and energy of our pursuits. However, the push for results ultimately ground people down, and fatigue, frustration and resentment moved into the working environment.

I failed to take into account everything about how this environment and our relentless push for more would affect the individuals on my team. I naively assumed they were as goal-driven as I was, and they would hold themselves up to my standards for productivity, quality and energy.

Effectively, I saw the situation through my eyes only and failed to take into account what it looked like from their perspectives. I’m forever grateful for the brave soul who offered, “You’re a machine, and we get that, but we’re not. This isn’t sustainable.”


A case in pivoting to empathy

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and I now help versions of that earlier me navigate similar circumstances. Some of these individuals have a well-developed sense of what effective leadership is, yet many struggle to create teams that perform.

In almost every situation where I’m working with a struggling leader, trust is absent in the environment, and empathy is nowhere to be found in the leader’s approach. The absence of trust and empathy, or the leader’s understanding of how their behaviors affect others, is a witch’s brew for creeping toxicity in the environment.

In one setting, a new leader’s high standards and fierce bias to action were perceived as unrealistic and overly demanding by the team members. Over the first few months, the leader grew frustrated with the team’s lack of energy for the mission and for what he deemed as unforgivable lapses in initiative and quality.

I met with the team members and learned they were hunkered down in defend mode, trying to avoid the leader’s line of fire and mostly thinking about finding new jobs. They felt they could never live up to the leader’s standards. Also, they perceived this leader had no clue about the impact of his demands and expectations on their situations.

Are you willing to create the pivot?

When I asked the leader if he was willing to do what it takes to successfully hit the restart button with this team, even if it would be uncomfortable, he admitted he was out of ideas and would give it a try. I advised him to do two things:

  1. Admit to his team members, his leadership approach wasn’t working and that he needed their help in hitting the reset button and setting the stage for success.
  2. Ask them to work with him on two projects: first, a set of team values and second, a leadership charter spelling out his accountability to supporting the team members.

They worked first on creating a set of team values describing the ground-rules for working, problem-solving, resolving disagreements and collaborating. The team defined the entire collection of values except for the anchor supplied by the leader — a value outlining the expectation for accountability on everyone’s part.

For the leadership charter, they used a version of my favorite leadership question: “At the end of our time working together when we’re and you’re successful, what will you say I did?”

Armed with this input from the team, the leader crafted a charter. It started with the words, “My job as a leader is to …” He shared it, adopted their suggestions for input, and then made it visible and tangible, by saying, “I expect you to hold me accountable to our team values and this charter.”

The leadership moment

What’s missing from the narrative above is that magical moment that occurred when everyone perceived the leader understood what the situation was like for them and was willing to give them the power to define corrective actions. Their eyes lit up, and in a moment that mattered, their hearts and minds melted, and they collectively started working on improving the situation.

Through these efforts, the team’s leader used a pivot to empathy as the catalyst to reset the environment. He backed this pivot up with a lifeline on building trust by giving them the power to define the needed changes.

I’ve watched some version of this case play out in many settings over time. The people and circumstances are different, but the pivot to empathy unfreezes people and supports the beginning of a productive dialog and the actions essential for building trust and performance. The pivot to empathy creates a powerful leadership moment.

The magical power of blending empathy and caring

We know from the research on leading in dangerous situations, there are several critical factors for leadership success. These include:

  • Caring at a personal level
  • Credibility earned by backing words with actions
  • Competence displayed — physically and cognitively, mainly via decision-making
  • Trust given, not demanded
  • Purpose front and center
  • Accountability uniformly and fairly enforced

Our case example incorporated all of these critical factors. It also included the nearly magical ingredient — caring for people at a personal level — that was responsible for the change in emotions and commitment from the team members.

During the early discussion on why he perceived his leadership approach was failing, he openly indicated his core belief that he was responsible for helping them succeed. This admission of caring and wanting to not only keep them safe but also help them succeed was the final missing ingredient in what turned into a remarkable team transformation.

The transmutation of lead to gold in leadership occurs when empathy combines with caring in the environment. Individuals want to know the person responsible for them not only understands the situation from their point of view but also cares about their safety and success.

The bottom line for now

In many organizations, the bias toward action is conflated with effective leadership. I love aggressive teams and leaders motivated to climb the next mountain. However, you don’t get those teams or climb those mountains unless you’re the leader they believe will guide them to success safely. Leading with empathy and authentically caring about the safety and success of your team members creates magical moments and outcomes for leaders and teams.


Art Petty is an executive and emerging leader coach and a popular leadership and management author, speaker, and workshop presenter. His experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership comes through in his books, articles, and live and online programs. You can visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles at

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mails on leadership, career growth and HR, among SmartBrief’s more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.