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Empathetic leadership: Just what the doctor ordered

Vinay Kamath Chennai | Updated on November 03, 2020

Empathetic leadership is as relevant to business as it is to any other segment   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

Amid the pandemic, the pecking order of skills and competencies has changed

Nestle India CMD Suresh Narayanan cites an instance of the selflessness of a health science executive during the peak Covid lockdown days, which demonstrates the empathy that flows through the organisation.

A family in Indore was desperately trying to get Peptamen, a muscle-building supplement, for the post-operative care of their daughter, but the Nestle Health Science product was in short supply. This executive ensured that Peptamen was somehow couriered from Ahmedabad, and personally delivered it to the family in the hospital. “This is not something that I can dictate from top-down. It has to demonstrate itself in behaviour by the top leadership and this can resonate in the most difficult of times, like we are having now,” says Narayanan.

For Narayanan, the values of dignity, respect, compassion and empathy are universal and it’s the task of every leader to demonstrate them, especially in a crisis. In extraordinary times like now, it’s only empathetic leadership that can carry forward teams as well as customers.

Emerging competencies

“Empathy,” says Harish Devarajan, former CHRO, HUL, and who now runs leadership effectiveness consultancy People Unlimited, “is about getting to know people at a deeper level, appreciating their realities and engaging their thinking and feeling in a genuine fashion.”

Devarajan says there are a number of competencies and skills which help in enhancing the effectiveness of leaders. The classical ones are: visioning, decisiveness, confidence, inspiration and integrity. “In more recent times there have been some emergent leadership competencies like humility, vulnerability and authenticity. In the current context of the pandemic and the work from home (WFH) syndrome, the competency that has spiked in popularity is empathy,” he says.

While empathy is not new to the list of leadership competencies, it had failed to make it to the top till recently. But the pecking order of the top skills and competencies has changed during the crisis. Surveys and reports by Development Dimensions International and BCG have all placed empathy on top. “In the new now, leadership will come from the head, heart and hands,” says a BCG piece on People Priorities during the crisis.

Diverse talent

“The ability of a leader to engage with team members beyond work, into their personal dreams and passion, is truly appreciated and earns their trust and loyalty. With this foundation they are assured of exceptional contribution from the team.” elaborates Devarajan.

Madhuri Pai, Global Diversity and Inclusion Director, Unilever, UK, in a recent webinar of the Madras Management Association on empathy and leadership, said an empathetic culture attracts diverse talent. People who are in a minority experience less empathy than people who form the median of population; so, when a company has an inclusive culture, word gets around and people would like to work for it.

Empathetic leadership is as relevant to business as it is to any other segment (social or political), points out Devarajan. Amid the pandemic and WFH situation, “leaders are physically distanced from their teams and this necessitates the need for them to consciously reach out and engage in more ways than just work related”, he elaborates.

The competency set of empathy, humility and vulnerability is clearly more important today than the classical set of visioning, decisiveness and confidence, says Devarajan. “Going forward, the two sets need to be definitely integrated for sustained leadership effectiveness.”

Published on November 03, 2020

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