Leaders are eternal gymnasts, whether or not they want to be. Their whole career is a balancing act between themselves and their direct reports.

If you’re too nice and friendly, there’s the risk of losing respect with your team. If you’re too harsh, then you probably are giving your team good reason to stop following you.

The dynamics of how your group gels with you is a leadership challenge unique to you. You can’t just copy another person’s method and expect the same results. You also can’t use the same leadership approach for every team you work with.

Different people have different reactions. So what do you do?

You develop a leader’s empathy.

Leaders Exist Because Of Their Followers

“Contrary to what most people think, leadership isn’t about the leader, but about the group.”

This quote came an article that mentioned the negative correlation between spending on leadership development programs and what people actually think about their leaders. With this in mind, what are leaders doing wrong that there is such a contrast between what they put into developing their skills and what they get out of it?

The key to all of this is you. Leadership development programs tend to be very cookie cutter, lack the context of real world challenges and aren’t within a period of time long enough to actually do anything for you as a leader.

Compare this to how you work with your team. This dynamic usually has a personality of its own, is continually faced with ongoing business challenges and requires time to make any sustainable changes to its culture.

This is where you take the focus off of you and place it on your team instead.

Leaders aren’t created by being assigned a role. Leaders are who they are because of the people who follow them. They exist because others are willing to entrust their livelihood, hard work and purpose to someone who looks out for them.

Telling leaders what to do without carefully considering the people they lead is a recipe for disaster. That focus on the followers is the difference between someone who is placed into a leadership position and someone who has earned it.

How do you become that kind of leader?

Wear Different Glasses Besides Your Own

Whether you work in corporate or you’re building your own business, you have desired results that you are working towards. No one debates how having goals gives you direction. But no one also talks about how being too focused on the goals can do more harm than good.

When you combine a narrow focus with a strong desire to meet a goal, you get a leader who isn’t taking other team members into consideration.

What that leader is lacking is crucial to empathy: perspective. Consider the following.

  • Even with decades of experience, how do you know, 100% of the time, that your way is the best way of doing things?
  • Leaders also don’t tend to be on the frontlines as much anymore. How are you sure that you have a complete grasp of the situation out there?
  • Here’s a shocker: what if you’re just dead wrong?

The best leaders aren’t the smartest people in the room. Instead they know how to bring together the smartest people to benefit everyone in the room.

They do this by getting out of their own heads and into the heads of their direct reports. What challenges can they predict from their perspective? What opportunities do they see? What do they think is a better way of improving current systems?

Why is this not only a great leadership quality but also a necessary one?

Empathy At Scale

Think about what encouraging this kind of empathy can do across your company.

If people know they can be open with their perspective, employee input shoots through the roof. Some may not like this because this creates conflict. But conflict is encouraged at the best run companies in the world. Progress can only happen if people are willing to butt heads for a higher purpose. Knowing how to do this will need another article so keep your eyes out for that.

There is also the added value of employee engagement.

Take Gary Vaynerchuk for example. In this video, he recognizes that each of the 800+ employees he works in his company has different motivations. For some of them, all they want is money. For others, it’s being able to go skiing every weekend.

Everyone has different needs and wants. As a leader, he caters to each of the 800 needs and wants of his employees. And that is how he has built such a cult following within VaynerMedia.

And So…

When it comes down to it, building empathy requires you to do only one thing: ask.

The next time you’re meeting someone and you’re discussing a goal, ask them what they think is the best approach. You don’t necessarily have to use their answer as the answer. But doing that just made that person trust in your leadership more than before.

When was the last time you used empathy as a leader?