Jacob Morgan
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Jacob Morgan

Now More Than Ever, Leaders Must Practice Empathy and Self-Awareness: Here’s How

Some of the best advice for future leaders might come across like some of the strangest: you have to be like Yoda.

Yoda, everyone’s favorite green Jedi from Star Wars, is known for being incredibly emotionally intelligent. Throughout Star Wars, Yoda appears as a guide and mentor to many of the other characters who turn to him for his wisdom.

Leaders of the future must learn to channel their internal Yoda, which means being emotionally intelligent, specifically being able to practice empathy and self-awareness.

How to Develop Empathy

Empathy is more than just saying, “I’m sorry”. It means really putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and looking at things from their perspective. Empathy is the cornerstone of a more human organization. For decades, leaders thought that coming across as stoic and unemotional was the key to success. But now employees want to work for organizations where they feel connected and emotionally invested, which comes from creating a more human organization. Much of that starts with having an empathetic leader.

I love what Stephen Smith, CEO of L.L. Bean, told me in our interview: “Historically, empathy has not been a word that’s used in business very often. But to be able to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and to look at any dilemma or any problem, or anything you’re trying to solve from multiple perspectives, is one of the most important things for leaders to be able to do.”

As a leader, empathy comes into play in many scenarios, such as trying to resolve a conflict by understanding everyone’s perspectives, developing products or services for customers, improving collaboration, creating psychological safety within a team, or just making better business decisions by understanding both the business and the human implications.

Some of the best advice on developing empathy comes from Dr. Brené Brown. She created a four-step approach to practicing empathy:

  • Perspective taking, or putting yourself in someone else’s shoes
  • Stay out of judgement and listen
  • Recognize emotion in another person that you have felt before
  • Communicate that you recognize that emotion

At its core, empathy is about creating an emotional connection to another human. In order to do so, we must be vulnerable and in tune with our own emotions. Leaders should practice these four steps on a regular basis when interacting with customers, employees, or friends and family.

How to Develop Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is about being aware of your own emotions, feelings, state of mind, motives, and desires and understanding how others perceive you. Developing self-awareness makes you a better communicator and influencer, which makes you a better leader.

Hans Vestberg, CEO of Verizon Communications, told me this: “The first layer of skills a good leader must master are internal: managing himself or herself as an individual human being. This includes physical health; emotional balance; self-knowledge — everything that you bring along with you to each meeting, each decision, each public event. A lot of leaders are tempted to ignore or de-emphasize this most basic layer but they do so at their peril.”

Developing self-awareness means being honest with yourself. It’s an ongoing process. Research has found that the more senior people get in their organizations, the less self-aware they become. But as you become a more influential leader, you actually need to become more self-aware.

Dr. Tasha Eurich is an expert in self-awareness. She says there are two types: internal and external. To develop internal self-awareness, start asking yourself what? instead of why? You can always explain the what, so asking yourself “What made me respond that way in the meeting?” can pinpoint your emotions more than asking yourself, “Why did I act that way in the meeting?”

The best way to develop external self-awareness is to get candid feedback from the people around you. Sometimes this can be difficult to hear, but knowing what people think about you and how they view you can help you find areas to improve and areas where you are doing well. Positive feedback is okay to receive, but it’s the critical feedback that will ultimately help you improve.

It took Yoda years and years to become the emotionally intelligent Jedi master we know and love. Developing these same characteristics requires time, practice, and vulnerability. Soft skills are increasingly important for future leaders, so becoming emotionally intelligent is one of the most important things you can do to set yourself up for future leadership success.


If you enjoyed the article and want more content like this here’s what you can do:

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Jacob Morgan

4x Best-Selling Author, Speaker, & Futurist. Founder of FutureOfWorkUniversity.com. Exploring Leadership, Employee Experience, & The Future of Work