Leadership Lessons: How Empathy Can Inspire Great Leadership

Recognizing the importance of empathetic leadership to business sustainability

Building and nurturing a team hinges on empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s feelings and perspectives. By taking the time to relate to others, you build trust,
encourage honesty and open up communication lines. Not only does this create an environment where everyone can fulfil their potential, it also provides far greater scope for innovation. As a leader, empathetic behavior is fundamental to attract staff who are willing to go the extra mile and nowhere is this more important than within the pharmaceutical industry where timelines are tight and competition fierce. With US unemployment at its lowest level in over fifty years, empathetic leadership is essential to promote staff retention and foster
a future-proof culture where the next generation of leaders can develop and grow.

“Empathetic leadership involves understanding not just employees but people generally and acknowledging the various factors that play into their work life as a whole,” notes Catherine Hanley, VP, Marketing and Customer Experience at Emergent BioSolutions. “When people feel they are understood and appreciated, they are often motivated to work harder. In contrast, a micro-management approach to leadership within pharma, or indeed any industry, can cultivate feelings of paranoia and fear that may diminish performance and lead
to increased staff turnover.”

Bonnie Bain, Global Head & Executive Vice President of Healthcare Operations and Strategy at GlobalData PLC, adds that with many companies under intense pressure to meet deadlines, the importance of empathetic leadership can often get put on the back burner, however this should certainly not be the case. “For a company to appeal to the broadest range of people, empathetic leadership needs
to be seen as a core business value,” she says. “Acting empathetically toward internal staff encourages hard work and dedication, while extending those behaviors to the customer is key to nurturing successful business relationships. Ultimately, in the case of pharma, this translates into tangible benefits to the patient.”

According to Frances Zipp, President and CEO of Lachman Consultant Services, inclusion and equality go hand-in-hand with empathy. “Where people feel the value that they bring to the table is recognized, there’s automatically a level of trust in place that allows them to be themselves,” she says. “Empathetic leaders build on that trust to get the best out of their teams, advocating openness and mutual respect to stimulate discussion aimed at helping the business evolve. Rather than endorsing a culture where people feel they must conform to a rigid stereotype, leaders who are empathetic to their staff engender a more inclusive environment where novel ideas can originate and grow.”

Empathy can be taught

The strong attachment relationships we form during our earliest years clearly indicate that we are primed to be empathetic, irrespective of our background or genetic traits. “Empathy is by no means gender-specific,” reports Zipp, “yet there may historically have been an assumption within our society that women are more empathetic than men. Certainly women can at times exhibit unconscious bias or over-think their behaviors and over-compensate as a mechanism to avoid being seen as soft, but men are equally capable of acting this way. Empathy comes from within and, while some people are naturally more empathetic than others, it is a personal responsibility to develop empathetic behaviors and channel these appropriately to effect positive change.”

“Learning to be a more empathetic leader is essential for both men and women to leverage the skillset of their team and benefit the company as a whole,” explains Bain. “Leadership in many organizations is predominantly male, with the under-representation of female leaders across pharma showing the industry to be sorely lacking when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Yet male leaders typically
include among their direct line reports women with the potential to one day be the leaders of the future. Empathy is not a gender issue, but a people issue, and it must cover the entire spectrum for individuals to feel their value is greater than the company’s bottom line.”

Expanding on Bain’s comment that leadership positions are mainly filled by men, Hanley highlights the need for more female mentors to support those women who are currently in training to take on leadership roles. “Many of the leadership positions within Emergent BioSolutions are held by women, meaning we have ample role models to coach more junior members of the organization,” she says. “This sets a clear example that top tier positions within the life sciences industry are not the exclusive domain of men and indicates that gender equality is achievable on a broader scale.”

Empathetic leadership promotes a strong corporate culture

The ability to share information in a timely manner is a core attribute of empathetic leaders, contributing to increased confidence in how an organization values its employees. “People in a position of leadership will of course be privy to certain knowledge before it becomes more widely available,” notes Hanley, “but an empathetic leader will be closely attuned to the feelings of their team and will let them know of any significant change as soon as it is appropriate to do so. Provided the company itself values the importance of empathy this type
of behavior will underpin a strong corporate culture.”

“People are considerably more likely to stay in a company they feel cares about them and that provides opportunities to succeed in the next stage of their career,” says Bain. “Training, HR practices and empathy all feed into the corporate culture, and it is up to those at the top to lead by example. It’s invaluable to have a great boss with whom you can be open and unafraid to discuss your failure, since a leader who reacts well is more amenable to taking risks that can inspire innovation. An empathetic leader will interact readily with people
at all levels and will show no hesitation in sharing their skills with others at different stages of the leadership journey.”

Zipp adds that, as working practices change, those organizations promoting a healthy work/life balance and increased flexibility on hours stand a greater chance of retaining employees. “As more women become leaders, the work/life balance really comes under the spotlight,” she says. “To strike that balance, you have to compromise, and it is important to be comfortable with the decisions you make. Being part of an organization that values empathetic leadership goes a long way to delivering career satisfaction but, like anything, it will take time for empathy to become the norm.”