Why empathy is more important to being a successful leader than “hustle”

This retired general says it’s the number one trait he looks for in leaders

General Stan McChrystal

In today’s “hustle culture,” there are thousands of founders, “hustlers,” and influencers finding large audiences with their advice for how to become “successful.” Often, this advice is delivered with high-energy videos, trending #hashtags, and supposedly motivational quotes such as “I’d rather hustle 24/7 than slave 9–5.” For those giving this advice, it’s the perfect scapegoat — if you aren’t successful (after following my advice), you aren’t working hard enough! In reality, working tirelessly and single-mindedly may come at a cost to developing other skills and traits that are more effective leadership tools.

In a recent podcast interview with Business Insider’s Richard Feloni, retired four-star General Stanley McChrystal, who previously led America’s Joint Special Operations Command and NATO forces in the War in Afghanistan, said that the first thing he looks for in leaders in empathy. He expounds:

“When I think about the two things that I hope leaders have, first is empathy. Understanding that if you’re sitting on the other side of the table you have a different perspective, and they might be right. So just being able to put yourself in their shoes. Doesn’t mean you agree with them, doesn’t mean you approve, but being able to see it is really important.” — Stanley McChrystal

McChrystal’s advice echoes that of decades old leadership books such How to Win Friends and Influence People and Emotional Intelligence. How to Win Friends and Influence People, originally published in 1936, is one of the best selling books of all time. Author Dale Carnegie took his 14–week leadership course and distilled it into a book, with sections such as “Fundamental Techniques in Handling People,” “Six Ways to Make People Like You,” and “Be a Leader: How to Change People Without Giving Offense or Arousing Resentment.” The overarching theme of the book is that in order to work with, manage, or influence people, demonstrating an understanding of their perspective is the most effective strategy — even more so than asking them to work harder: “Instead of condemning people, let’s try to understand them. Let’s try to figure out why they do what they do. That’s a lot more profitable and intriguing than criticism; and it breeds sympathy, tolerance and kindness.

Daniel Goleman has a similar perspective in his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, which is based on the premise that emotional awareness of oneself and others is as important (if not more) than IQ for success in professional, social, and interpersonal aspects of one’s life. Goleman explains, “Transparency and openness also make people feel like they are trusted, respected, and connected to their organization — instead of being told what to do and kept in the dark.

When put clearly, the lesson should be obvious: employees prefer to work with and for people that they feel understand and support them, rather than someone setting unrealistic expectations for working hours and output.

Elon Musk, whom is undoubtedly successful and hardworking, has serious trouble with employee / executive retention, and has been criticized for his management style. Could he be more effective if he focused more on understanding his management team and employees (and didn’t need to recruit and train new talent constantly?)

While hard work is not inherently bad, focusing purely on “the grind” is not a scalable way to build anything long-lasting. As of 2019, “burnout” is officially recognized as a medical condition by the World Health Organization, likely gaining attention due to the pervasiveness of Hustle Culture. To build something sustainable, the better strategy is to build a following of dedicated team members whom you are able to motivate organically through understanding their wants, needs, and motivations. In other words — put yourself in their shoes.

At the end of the day, hustle won’t improve every area of your life and is unsustainable in the long-run. While it may result in short-term productivity gains, demonstrating a brute-force work ethic won’t always motivate others to work with you, and could have negative impacts on other aspects of your life such as personal relationships and hobbies. Developing empathy, on the other hand, can positively impact every part of your life that involves other people, and make you a more effective and productive leader by aligning others with your mission.