College of Business, Student Success Center

How to be an empathetic leader

By Denise Dawson | January 31, 2023

Empathy is a critical trait for all leaders. No leadership values list is complete without it.

Dr. Tom McDonald says, “[Leaders] must show empathy, attunement, organizational awareness, influence, interest in developing others, inspiration, and teamwork. Are these qualities you’re creating in yourself? If not, you have precious little chance of becoming a powerful leader.”   

What is empathy? According to Merriam-Webster, it is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another in either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experiences fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.   

If empathy is not on your list of leadership traits, you are not alone.

In a study by Svetlana Holt and Joan Marques, empathy ranked lowest among leadership qualities. Respondents had many reasons for the low ranking, including believing empathy interfered with decision-making. Sometimes, it is viewed as a sign of weakness.   

Most of us would prefer to work for a leader with a high level of empathy.

I was thankful for an empathetic boss when my mother died. I was a new full-time employee with few accumulated leave hours. The company policy gave employees three bereavement days. My boss gave me an extra five days with pay.

In another department, an employee with cancer exhausted her sick and annual leave. Her boss had her come in early or stay late to make up for taking an extended lunch to receive treatment. Which boss would you want to work for?  

Two weeks after my mother died, a tree fell on my house in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, my husband was out of town. I was alone with a three-year-old. My boss gave me the day off with pay. She even offered to call the head of the facilities department to get a couple of the guys to place a tarp on the roof. What a great boss.  

Joanna Ciulla says, “A leader’s job and moral obligation is to tend or care for his or her followers.” How can you recognize an empathetic boss? The boss cares for followers.

How do you know? Employee input is welcomed. The boss listens to what employees say. Employees are mentored, coached, and allowed to grow.   

Take a moment to picture the organizational culture created by a leader lacking empathy. Do you want to work for someone who docks your pay for being five minutes late? Do you want to work for a boss who does not care whether it is your child’s first day of kindergarten or if you got a flat tire on the way to work? Would you enjoy working for a boss who does not listen to you?   

Is empathy a sign of weakness? No, it is one of the most important leadership skills. Empathetic leaders create an atmosphere where creativity and innovation thrive.  

No one should work for a Darth Vader. Your boss’s attitude should not invoke a constant state of stress. You should not fear being choked to death for a simple mistake. While Vader is an extreme example, I hope he helps you to see the value of empathy in leadership.  


Denise Dawson is the director of alumni engagement at Charleston Southern University. She is currently in the Master of Arts in organizational leadership program at Charleston Southern University.

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