With raging pandemic, empathy trends as a top leadership quality

Vinay Kamath Chennai | Updated on October 28, 2020

The pecking order of the skills and competencies have changed during the crisis

Nestle India’s Chairman & Managing Director 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 during post-operative care for their daughter, but the Nestle Health Science product was in short supply. This executive ensured that peptamen was somehow couriered from Ahmedabad. He 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. 

As Narayanan says, for him, the values of dignity, respect, compassion and empathy are universal and it’s the task of every leader to demonstrate it, especially in a crisis. “Just as you protect your family during a crisis, leaders have to show that in a crisis you serve the people in your company as a family too,” he explains. In extraordinary times like now, it’s only empathetic leadership that can carry forward teams as well as customers.

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

Harish says there are a number of competencies and skills which help in enhancing the effectiveness of leaders. The classical competencies are: visioning, decisiveness, confidence, inspiration, integrity, are undoubtedly important for the effectiveness of a leader.  “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 syndrome, the competency that has spiked in its popularity is empathy," says Harish. 

While empathy is not a new one to the list of leadership competencies, it had failed to make it to the top of the list till now. But the pecking order of the top skills and competencies have 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.

 “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 Harish.  

 Madhuri Pai, Global Diversity and Inclusion Director of Unilever (UK), in a recent webinar of the Madras Management Association on empathy and leadership, says that an empathetic culture attracts diverse talent. Age group, sexuality, people from different races are all aspects of diversity, she says. People who are in a minority experience less empathy than people who form the median of population so for a company that has an inclusive culture, word gets around and people would like to work for it. “This diverse workforce can lead to more diversity of thought, more innovation, and it leads to a virtuous cycle,” she adds.  

ICF-certified master coach Priya Ramesh says in her interactions with business heads, they say they find themselves in a never-before situation as so far they were all driven by numbers, collections, and sales. “While they do keep an eye on the larger business objective, they say that now they find they need to support their people emotionally when they fall ill or take care of their families. They need to go beyond the boundaries of work-life,” she says. 

Empathetic leadership is as relevant to business as it is to any other segment (social or political), points out Harish. As long as people are in the mix and the goal is better achieved by aligned and committed individuals, empathetic leadership is bound to be a key enabler. 

According to him, in today’s reality where teams are physically distanced, a  lot of leaders are struggling since they have never been anything else but task-oriented. “Now with distance and uncertainty the task accomplishment calls for newer approaches that needs to be co-created and which needs to be done with trust and comfort in the relationship,” he elaborates. 

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

Published on October 28, 2020

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