I recently had a conversation with a colleague interested in applying for a promotion.
“I don’t think I have what it takes,” she said, “I don’t have an MBA.”
I tried to explain that an MBA is not essential to leadership. And, in fact, she already had what, in my experience, is the most valuable quality of all: empathy.
Empathy is often confused with sympathy but there is a stark difference. Sympathy is about feeling sorry for another person. With sympathy, one views another as different from him or her. Sympathy is defined as, “feelings of pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.” With empathy, one actually identifies with another person and sees him or herself within that person. By contrast, empathy is defined as, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
Empathy thrives in connection and connection comes from a willingness to be vulnerable and open. Studies show that those who admit mistakes and engage in honest conversation have stronger relationships.
So why is empathy such an important characteristic of a leader and why is it so hard to come by?
I recently watched a documentary on Franklin D. Roosevelt. The documentary focused on FDR’s life before polio and his life after. Before polio, FDR was known for being wealthy, privileged, and difficult to relate to. He struggled socially in school. His classmates didn’t like him. After polio, those who knew FDR noted a transformation. They described him as warm, thoughtful, and encouraging of others. FDR saw people in difficult economic conditions and, despite his own wealthy upbringing, identified with their struggles and championed The New Deal. He did not see those who struggled in the Great Depression as “the other.” He saw them as human, like himself. He empathized with them.
Empathy gave FDR the strength, humility, and grace needed to bring a nation through depression and world war with unbridled optimism.
Empathy can come through personal experience or it can be taught through connection. But it can only be taught if someone is willing to step away from the computer, the phone, the desk and engage with another person. The Harvard Business Review recently released an article stating that the most empathetic companies achieved greater commercial success. FDR was elected four times. Empathy breeds success.
I believe that our greatest achievements come from understanding our shared humanity and cultivating a skill more hard-fought in the battles of relationships and struggle than any degree can offer. Educational attainment and personal accomplishments are important but they only become remarkable when used to retain their true value: to be of service to others.