Vickie Stolle Of Dragonfly Paradigm: 5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Cynthia Corsetti
Authority Magazine


Enhancing Decision-Making: By embracing empathetic practices, leaders gain the ability to approach challenges with both sensitivity and clarity. Sensitivity allows them to tune into the emotions and perspectives of those involved. At the same time, clarity ensures that leaders can make well-informed decisions, drawing on their nuanced comprehension of the diverse experiences within their team or organization. This approach, combining emotional intelligence with a clear understanding of diverse viewpoints, enables leaders to address complexities with a balanced and inclusive perspective.

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is increasingly recognized as a pivotal leadership trait. In an ever-evolving business landscape, leaders who exhibit genuine empathy are better equipped to connect, inspire, and drive their teams towards success. But how exactly does empathy shape leadership dynamics? How can it be harnessed to foster stronger relationships, improved decision-making, and a more inclusive work environment? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Vickie Stolle.

Vickie Stolle, a speaker, writer, and dedicated resilience advocate, is known for empowering individuals to uncover their innate resilience skills. As the driving force behind Dragonfly Paradigm, she passionately guides individuals on their journey toward unlocking their personal resilience potential. With a profound understanding of adversity’s transformative power, Vickie began her journey of sharing her insights within the cleft community, drawing from her lived experience with a facial difference, and now expands the reach of her expertise to a broader audience. Vickie’s mission underscores her dedication: empowering everyone with invaluable tools to navigate life’s challenges with strength and grace, fostering resilience and personal growth.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about empathy, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Thank you so much for having me, Cynthia. My work in this area actually began because of my daughter. When she was in first grade, she had a situation with bullying that brought up some very extreme responses in me, that, with further reflection, let me know that I had a lot of work to do on myself to be the best parent I could be for her. Because you see, Cynthia, I also had my first bullying experience in first grade due to my facial difference. I was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate and, as I’m sure you and our readers can imagine, living with a visible difference opens you up to quite a bit of ridicule. Although my parents were very supportive and created a loving home for me, it was the 70’s and 80’s, and there just wasn’t much talk about emotional health like there is today, and so my parents did the best they could with what was available to them. It wasn’t until I was much older and had this experience with my daughter that I realized how much talking about and addressing the emotional side of the cleft journey is just as important as the medical side of things. From that personal development work I felt compelled to share with others in the cleft community what I had learned from my lived experience. But, of course, many of us know that building resilience skills is a universal need, and so began my mission to bring my insights and expertise to a broader audience where I can share how to harness our powers of personal resilience development.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

What has been the most impactful and interesting aspect of my work is just how universal it all is. No matter if you have a visible difference or not, we all have something in our lives that tests us, that challenges us, and if we do not have solid skills at our fingertips to use, we can go down some very difficult paths to try to remedy our situation. I remember one instance of a mother asking me how she can help her daughter open up to her about her cleft journey, and the advice I gave her actually made her stop for a moment and say, “I can’t believe it could be that simple.” The advice was “To listen.” So often when we’re dealing with kids, or anyone that we care about, when they have a problem, we want to dive in and fix it straight away. So, we lead by telling them what they need to do. But sometimes, and I’m sure we all can attest to this, we don’t want someone to tell us what to do, or what we should be doing. We want someone to simply listen. One of the key aspects to building resilience and empathy as a leader, parent, or anyone in charge of others, is connection. Listening is a sure-fire way of doing that.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I believe what makes my company stand out is my unique perspective of being a child who went through quite a lot of adversity — both physically and emotionally — as well as being a parent going through the ups and downs of what it takes to raise a child. It has afforded me empathy to both sides of the parenting journey and through that I take pride in the authenticity and relatability of the insights I offer. Specifically in my work with parents who have cleft affected children, they often comment how encouraging it is to talk with an adult with a cleft because they can then imagine their own child living a full, beautiful, and amazing life. Being a representation of a successful individual gives those parents quite a bit of comfort in what their own child’s life can be.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Sure, I’d be happy to. In my work and within my personal development process, there are three traits that I believe truly helped me. First, resilience. Life in general is hard and being born with a facial difference compounded that at times for me. When I was young, I did whatever I could to make it through, but as I got older, I found that what worked for me in the past wasn’t serving me well any longer — like putting up walls thinking that if I didn’t let anyone in, I couldn’t get hurt. For the longest time I thought that resilience was just pushing through the hard things and pretending that nothing was bothering me. I didn’t know that resilience is a skill, and not a stagnant thing we just “do”. Over time I began to learn that resilience is something I can work at and improve through self-reflection and asking ourselves tough questions, such as “am I satisfied with results I’m getting?”. I also learned that our resilience skills are completely unique to us all. Coming to that understanding let me have the freedom to try new things and leave behind those coping skills that weren’t healthy or were no longer working to take me where I wanted to go in life.

Second, empathy. When you go through challenges, it lends itself to giving you the gift of seeing and relating to others and their struggles. However, not everyone sees challenges and painful experiences as gifts. It takes a paradigm shift to see that there can be positives to our difficult times. It could have been very easy for me to become hardened by my experiences growing up and being bullied and feeling less than due to my cleft. But instead, I chose to take those painful experiences and use them to fuel my empathy and understanding of others, and eventually give back to others through the work I do within Dragonfly Paradigm. We all have a choice of how we react to what happens to us, and seeing the value in our challenges and how we can relate to others because of those experiences is where we can make major impacts.

Third, adaptability. One thing I’ve learned when it comes to resilience, is that it is extremely personal. What works for you, Cynthia, may not work for me and vice vera. Throughout my work within and beyond the cleft community, I interact with so many people that have diverse economic backgrounds, different upbringings, and differing family dynamics, so I cannot take a “one size fits all” approach. However, at our core, we are fundamentally looking for the same things. We want to know how we can live our lives as successfully as possible using what we have to the best of our abilities. That is where the principles and techniques I use come in to help people find what will work for them.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

As an entrepreneur running a small business, I often tackle tasks on my own. And for many leaders in various fields, we can tend to believe that doing it ourselves and doing what we believe is the right way is the only way we get things done. But as my work has expanded, I find that being open to hearing other ideas and opinions can bring about even greater results than what I originally expected. Recently I was presented with the opportunity to collaborate on a presentation for a virtual convention with an individual whose background starkly contrasted with mine. Initially, I was unsure about how our diverse backgrounds would blend and found that my initial instincts were to push my vision onto her because I had my plan for how it should go. However, recognizing the potential of combining our strengths, I opted for an open-minded approach. We didn’t rush into decisions, instead we engaged in extensive dialogue, allowing each other to articulate our visions, concerns, and aspirations for the project. Taking the time to do this enabled us to navigate our differences and formulate a cohesive plan, and ultimately led to our collaboration being a huge success! This experience taught me that leadership isn’t just about calling all the shots or bulldozing over others to do things my way. It’s about listening, compromising, and leveraging everyone’s strengths. It’s not always a straightforward journey but setting aside ego and focusing on the bigger picture can lead to incredible collaborative outcomes.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define empathy in a leadership context, and why do you believe it’s a vital trait for leaders to possess in today’s work environment?

Empathy is stepping into someone else’s shoes and understanding things from their perspective. I find that the definition holds true in leadership settings as well. However, it’s important to differentiate between empathy and sympathy, as they can often get mixed up. Empathy means relating to someone’s experiences, even if we haven’t personally lived through them. On the other hand, sympathy tends to be feeling sorry for someone, which most of us don’t want — we don’t want pity, we want to be seen, heard, and understood.

When collaborating with others, it’s vital to acknowledge their unique experiences, thoughts, and concerns, offering them the respect they deserve. Leaders across all fields should hone their empathy skills to step beyond their own perspectives and recognize others as valuable contributors to the shared objectives. Understanding and valuing people for who they are is key to achieving our collective goals.

Can you share a personal experience where showing empathy as a leader significantly impacted a situation or relationship in your organization?

As we discussed earlier, recognizing the uniqueness of individuals is paramount, whether dealing with employees, clients, or anyone we collaborate with. Last year, while preparing for a speaking event focused on helping parents navigate conversations about facial differences with their children, an opportunity emerged to include a first-time speaker who would share personal experiences and advice. Understanding her apprehension about speaking on stage, I initiated several conversations in advance. These discussions aimed not only to ensure she felt comfortable and understood what to expect but also to tailor the content in a way that preserved her relatability. This proactive approach to understanding and addressing her concerns allowed for a profoundly meaningful and authentic delivery, significantly impacting the success of our collaborative effort.

How do empathetic leaders strike a balance between understanding their team’s feelings and making tough decisions that might not be universally popular?

Communication. Effective communication is often the missing link in avoiding hurt feelings or fostering unhealthy environments. Nowadays, it feels like communication skills have fallen by the wayside. It’s crucial to be upfront, honest, and transparent about needs, expectations, and how everyone’s input contributes to launching projects. However, where many stumble is in the follow-up — providing feedback, expressing gratitude for input, and clarifying how decisions were reached. Creating a respectful, open work environment begins with leaders setting the tone. Leaders must exemplify clarity, outlining goals and pathways for accomplishment, which minimizes misunderstandings, dismissed feelings, or confusion. This approach ensures that every individual feels valued for their contributions, even if they don’t entirely align with the final decision.

How would you differentiate between empathy and sympathy in leadership? Why is it important for leaders to distinguish between the two?

I touched on this briefly already, but the key difference is that empathy is relational, and sympathy is concern based. Many people get them mixed up, but it is important to understand that they are, in fact, different. In general, people don’t like to feel pitied or sorry for. We want to feel heard and understood. That is what empathy is. Leaders need to be sure they understand that difference and by doing so, can change the way they interact with those they work with.

What are some practical strategies or exercises that leaders can employ to cultivate and enhance their empathetic skills?

First off, active listening. Leaders can give their full attention, avoid interrupting, and take a moment to really think before responding. It’s about being genuinely present in conversations. Next, perspective-taking exercises. Ever tried stepping into someone else’s shoes? Leaders can practice seeing things from different angles, imagining how others might feel or think in various situations. Then, cultural sensitivity training. Leaders need to learn about diverse cultures, marginalized groups, backgrounds, and experiences. Understanding different perspectives helps build empathy across the board. And finally, practicing gratitude. Leaders should make it a habit to show appreciation regularly. Recognizing the efforts of team members creates a sense of connection and understanding, which goes a long way in fostering empathy within a team or organization.

How can empathy help leaders navigate the complexities of leading diverse teams and ensure inclusivity?

By actively practicing empathy, leaders tap into a deeper understanding of their team members’ unique perspectives, experiences, and needs. This understanding becomes the foundation for creating an inclusive environment based on trust, open communication, and a sense of belonging. Empathy also proves essential in addressing conflicts and challenges with sensitivity. By acknowledging the diverse range of emotions and concerns that may arise, leaders create a supportive atmosphere where team members feel heard and respected, regardless of their background.

In essence, empathy serves as a guide for leaders. It fosters collaboration, appreciation for unique strengths, and a culture where everyone feels understood and valued. This not only enhances the overall team dynamic but also fuels innovation and performance.

What’s your approach to ensuring that succession planning is a holistic process, and not just confined to the top layers of management? How do you communicate this philosophy through the organization?

Although my company does not have a management team, there are still ways in which I share my vision and philosophy with others I engage with, beginning with prioritizing talent development across all levels. Communication is central to this approach. I emphasize continuous learning and growth for myself and those I work with, making it clear that each person contributes significantly to the project’s success. I foster this culture through regular updates and discussions about progression and skill-building opportunities. Mentorship also plays a pivotal role in this scenario, even in a smaller setting. I encourage experienced collaborators and project partners to guide and support newer ones, creating a sense of shared responsibility for professional development. By incorporating these elements, I communicate that the planning of objectives and projects is not just for me to put together but is integral to the success and growth of whatever we are looking to accomplish. This inclusive approach ensures that each team member sees their value and potential impact on the project’s future success.

Based on your experience and research, can you please share “5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership”?

1. Cultivating Stronger Connections: Living with a facial difference has shaped my personal and professional journey, deepening my understanding of the importance of genuine connections. Through this experience and my subsequent work with others, I’ve realized that actively listening, finding common ground, and building meaningful relationships are essential for fostering trust and understanding. These components form the foundation of resilient relationships. For leaders aspiring to create cohesive and connected working environments, incorporating empathetic practices is key. Understanding the perspectives and needs of team members through empathy not only strengthens relationships but also contributes significantly to building a positive and harmonious workplace culture.

2. Enhancing Decision-Making: By embracing empathetic practices, leaders gain the ability to approach challenges with both sensitivity and clarity. Sensitivity allows them to tune into the emotions and perspectives of those involved. At the same time, clarity ensures that leaders can make well-informed decisions, drawing on their nuanced comprehension of the diverse experiences within their team or organization. This approach, combining emotional intelligence with a clear understanding of diverse viewpoints, enables leaders to address complexities with a balanced and inclusive perspective.

3. Building High-Performing Teams: Empathy becomes the driving force behind a collective effort, where each team member feels valued and heard. As I mentioned earlier, I saw this firsthand in a recent collaboration with someone from a different background. Our shared empathy towards one another not only boosted our spirit, but also sparked innovation as we blended our diverse talents. When leaders foster this kind of caring environment, they’re not just setting the stage for success; they’re knitting together a place where each person thrives, contributing to the team’s lasting growth and success.

.4. Inspiring Employee Engagement: As a volunteer with Smile Train, where building engagement within the cleft community is a top priority, I’ve experienced how fostering an empathetic work environment can lead to increased employee and volunteer involvement. The leadership at Smile Train, understanding the sensitivity of discussing facial differences and the emotional toll it may take, has gone above and beyond to create a secure space. As a member of the Cleft Community Advisory Council, I’ve found this organization to be the ultimate safe space, allowing us to openly share ideas. Empathetic leaders go the extra mile to assist their team members during challenges, offering resources, guidance, and a comforting presence. This creates a safety net that inspires employees to wholeheartedly invest in their work. Beyond individual motivation, these leaders understand the significance of fostering a warm and inviting work environment. Through Smile Train’s efforts in encouraging honest and open dialogue of ideas, they transform the workplace — whether we’re in person or meeting virtually — into a space where individuals not only feel motivated to contribute, but also develop a strong commitment to the collective success of the team, and organization.

5. Driving Lasting Organizational Impact: Lasting organizational impact goes beyond the confines of the workplace, especially when rooted in the insights gained from personal journeys. The application of empathy in leadership becomes a catalyst for transformative change that extends far beyond the immediate organizational sphere. Rather than being limited to internal dynamics, empathetic leadership propels organizations toward ethical practices, social responsibility, and sustainable growth, showcasing a commitment to a broader societal perspective.

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Are there potential pitfalls or challenges associated with being an empathetic leader? How can these be addressed?

Two come to mind. First, decision making challenges. Leaders may struggle with making tough decisions that may have negative consequences for their team members. While empathy is important, leaders can combine it with objective analysis. Clear communication about the reasons behind decisions, coupled with providing support during transitions, helps mitigate the impact of tough choices. Secondly, emotional exhaustion. Constantly absorbing and understanding the emotions of others can lead to emotional exhaustion for empathetic leaders. It’s crucial to find a balance between being supportive and protecting one’s emotional well-being. The implementation of self-care practices like setting boundaries and seeking support from peers or mentors can help address this situation. Delegating tasks and responsibilities can also help distribute the emotional load.

Off-topic, but I’m curious. As someone steering the ship, what thoughts or concerns often keep you awake at night? How do those thoughts influence your daily decision-making process?

I often find myself pondering how to deliver content and materials that are not just relatable and usable but also genuinely help my community achieve their goals. To tackle this concern, I ask questions. I make a point to actively engage with those I serve and listen to what they want to share. Creating an environment of openness and safety encourages honest feedback, allowing for valuable insights and ensuring that what we deliver truly meets the needs and aspirations of those we work with.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I would love to see a movement that encourages everyone to confidently embrace their inherent power of resilience. By understanding our capacity to influence our thoughts, feelings, and actions, and using them to our advantage, we could empower individuals not just to get through life but to flourish in it.

How can our readers further follow you online?

The easiest way is through my website. All the information about my work is there, as well as my social media links.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

Thank you so much Cynthia for this conversation! Wishing you the best as well.