Empathy Into Action

How 7 Modern Leaders Operationalized The Value of Empathy

Hamza Khan
Feb 28 · 8 min read
Illustrations by Samtrez Crawley // Additional Research & Writing by Jasmine Williams

Our world could always use more kindness and compassion, especially now as we navigate our pandemic-stricken society. During the COVID-19 crisis, you’ve probably been working “as usual” while facing the stressors of an unstable workforce, escalated health and safety risks, and increased issues with work-life balance. You’ve likely also tackled those challenges while also staying informed about rapidly changing policies about general health, the pandemic, and workplace operations.

Add in an increase in mental health issues, and it’s no surprise why both employees and managers alike need an extra dose of empathy, now more than ever. This isn’t a time for a “tough love” approach to management. Research reveals that, for most employees, social support and understanding are vital ingredients for alleviating stress and adjusting work-life expectations.

If you encourage vulnerability, you’ll likely find that your team will be more creative as a result. Empathy breaks down barriers of fear and makes room for people to speak their minds confidently. However, empathy isn’t an innate skill, even amongst the best leaders. You need to devote time and energy to strengthening your empathy muscle.

We know that being empathetic demands a lot from a leader, so in this article, we’ll walk you through why empathy is essential to leadership and share lessons from modern role models who value empathy.

Why is empathy important to leadership?

Empathy is about more than caring about people in an abstract way. It’s about creating and maintaining relationships built on a foundation of trust. Good leaders know that being empathetic means that you identify with someone else’s experiences. When you actively consider different perspectives, you’re practicing your empathy.

It’s also about knowing that you don’t have the answer to every problem. It’s not about being perfect but about trusting your team to help you find those answers. The more heard and understood your team feels, the more likely they are to work hard at their projects because they want to make you (and themselves) proud. They’ll also be happier overall as employees, and they’ll likely perform better too.

Contrary to popular belief, empathy is not a ‘soft skill’ and deserves more credit for being the glue that holds companies and teams together. Without empathy, there’s only room for fear and frustration. With empathy, you embody stability and nurture creativity.

Lessons from modern role models who promote empathy

As you embark upon your journey toward becoming a more empathetic leader, we’ve collected lessons from various modern leaders to inspire you:

  • Kamala Harris, Vice-President @ United States of America
  • Jack Dorsey, CEO @ Twitter & Square
  • Melinda Gates, Co-Chair @ Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • Arne Sorenson, Ex-CEO @ Marriott International
  • Masai Ujiri, President @ Toronto Raptors
  • Barack Obama, Ex-President @ United States of America
  • Daniel Lubetzky, CEO @ KIND Snacks

Read on to discover how these leaders balance empathy and leadership.

As the current Vice-President of the United States, Kamala Harris will inspire and shape leadership practices from the second-highest level of American government. She always prioritizes listening — and has done so since childhood. Carole Porter knew Harris growing up and told FOX40:“[Kamala] helped other kids. She cared about the people she was around. She loved her family fiercely.” Harris’s care for all people is evident in how she stops, listens, and responds to whatever someone throws her way. No one is unimportant to Harris.

Using social media, among other platforms, Harris meets people at their level and forges relationships that allow her to stay in tune with America’s needs. For example, when 14-year-old artist Tyler Gordon painted a portrait of Harris, she reached out to Gordon to personally talk about his art.

ACTION: Remain attuned to peoples’ needs by actively listening to them.

As the CEO of Twitter and Square, Jack Dorsey understands the extreme emotional swings of society. He uses his power and platform for good. His actions speak for themselves — from marching in Ferguson in 2014 to donating $1 billion to coronavirus relief to donating to Rihanna’s nonprofit to bolster mental health services during the pandemic.

“Jack has fundamentally always had a belief that business can and will be a force for good in the world,” said David Jones, former chief executive of advertising group Havas and founder of tech company You & Mr. Jones.

Even Twitter itself is fundamentally empathetic in design as it connects us and allows us to see into other people’s lives. Collaboration and connection are the backbones of Dorsey’s creations and actions.

ACTION: Never forget that you can do well by doing good.

As a co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Melinda Gates encourages people to lead with love and empathy, which she deems, underrated but invaluable. She notes that if you empathize with your employees, you will help make their working environment more comfortable and more productive, which will bolster your organization’s overall success.

Gates’ view is that compassion will make your workplace stronger, and without it, there’s less heart and soul to your work. She told Business Insider: “When you reach out and connect with somebody over their humanity, that ultimately is love.” Not only will empathy bond you and your employees, but it will also allow trust to flourish.

ACTION: Infuse empathy into the organization’s culture.

Arne Sorenson, the former CEO and President of Marriott International knew firsthand how to make people feel valued and cared for. His people were always his priority, telling Forbes: “We simply cannot succeed unless people are truly engaged and happy in their work.” For him, that meant everyone from the top of the food chain down to the latest hire at a hotel.

Marriott has always supported their employees in the wake of larger crises, like the Great Depression, 9/11, and the COVID-19 pandemic, from starting educational programs to maintaining benefits for their staff. Sorenson is authentic with his leadership by being frank and honest, especially in times of crisis.

ACTION: Prioritize people alongside (and above) the needs of the mission.

Masai Ujiri is proof that a good leader prioritizes collaboration, gratitude, and empathy. As the Toronto Raptors President, he checks his ego at the door and always listens to his players. At an IBM THINK event in Toronto, he shared this piece of advice about gratitude and his outlook on life: “Every day, ask yourself, was I good to people that day?”

Ujiri also gives praise and thanks to those that supported him and helped him succeed. He uses that success to draw attention to others who deserve recognition, like his basketball mentor, Oliver Johnson. After his team won against the Golden State Warriors, he brought the championship trophy to his hometown in Nigeria to acknowledge how crucial Johnson was to his journey.

ACTION: Share the spotlight.

The 44th president of the United States broke barriers and led with conviction throughout his two terms. While in office, his priorities centered around compassion, empathy, and giving back to the people who trusted him and voted him into office.

Even now, out of office, he uses his empathy to advocate for those without a voice. He loudly and directly called out Donald Trump’s policy of separating families at the U.S./Mexico border. In a statement on the policy, Obama said: “We have to do more than say, “this isn’t who we are. We have to prove it — through our policies, our laws, our actions, and our votes.”

ACTION: Use your influence to advocate for the needs of those with less power.

Daniel Lubetzky, CEO and Founder of KIND Snacks, fosters empathy through Empatico, a free educational tool that connects virtual classrooms. He told the Alumni Society that he hopes the program “can help children discover each other’s humanity.” Empatico makes it easier for students to access new perspectives and forge new friendships. Lubetzky relies heavily on empathy and humour to help him lead at all times, but it has been instrumental during the pandemic.

ACTION: Work hard to create a more open and kind world.

Ideas Into Action

Empathy develops an organization’s genuine attunement with its internal and external environments. When maximized, it enables a leader to read the pullse of employees, customers, stakeholders, and the general public. In the absence of empathy, a leader becomes oblivious to the realities of their people and the world at large.

Augment your leadership style with ideas from each of the 7 modern leaders featured in this article:

  • Kamala Harris: Remain attuned to peoples’ needs by actively listening to them.
  • Jack Dorsey: Never forget that you can do well by doing good.
  • Melinda Gates: Infuse empathy into the organization’s culture.
  • Arne Sorenson: Prioritize people alongside (and above) the needs of the mission.
  • Masai Ujiri: Share the spotlight.
  • Barack Obama: Use your influence to advocate for the needs of those with less power.
  • Daniel Lubetzky: Work hard to create a more open and kind world.

As a leader, you can’t underestimate the value of empathy. An empathetic leader should be open and honest with their team and help them feel good about their work. By fostering a safe and welcoming environment, you can look out for your team, and in turn, they will look out for you.

Update your leadership style for the modern workplace with practical strategies for new leaders. Get a copy of my latest book, “Leadership, Reinvented,” here: https://geni.us/LReinventedWebsite

Leadership, Reinvented

Stop Managing, Start Leading

Hamza Khan

Written by

Managing Director @StudentLifeNet. Author of #TheBurnoutGamble. TED & Keynote Speaker. Multi-Award Winning Marketer & Entrepreneur. hamzakhan.ca

Leadership, Reinvented

Reinvent yourself and your organization with practical strategies and tools for modern leaders.

Hamza Khan

Written by

Managing Director @StudentLifeNet. Author of #TheBurnoutGamble. TED & Keynote Speaker. Multi-Award Winning Marketer & Entrepreneur. hamzakhan.ca

Leadership, Reinvented

Reinvent yourself and your organization with practical strategies and tools for modern leaders.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store