For Leaders, Empathy Is Everything

Empathy is a very important trait  for business leaders to exhibit, but it’s particularly critical during a crisis. And, ironically, this might be the most difficult time for them to do so.

When a crisis strikes, it often puts leadership on the defensive, causing them to think more about the impact it will have on their business or even themselves.

Here are some ways leaders can exude empathy, even when the chips are down:

Vulnerability is a sign of strength. Many think that showing vulnerability -- especially during a crisis -- is a sign of weakness. It’s actually the opposite. Being vulnerable shows you care. Yes, business leaders need to display strength and inspire confidence, but they are also human and have emotions. Who can forget when Arne Sorenson, then CEO of Marriott Hotels, was brought to tears when he informed employees that COVID-19’s impact on the hospitality industry would cause many to lose their jobs? Sorenson (who, sadly, lost his battle with cancer in February 2021) was widely praised for his “sincerity,” “compassion” and “true leadership.” Indeed, in about five minutes he proved that looking out for your company and caring for your employees is not mutually exclusive.



Feel what you say. What you say during a crisis is important -- but so is how you say it. Consider the time Oscar Munoz, former United Airlines CEO, addressed the incident when a passenger was forcibly removed from a flight. Regardless of his earlier missteps, including a defensive written statement, when Munoz had the chance to make good by addressing the incident via a video apology, it looked like he was reading a script that somebody else had written, and he felt nothing about the words coming out of his mouth.

This raises two important points about your crisis spokesperson. First, make sure they are properly trained to publicly address the issue at hand. Second, recognize that, even with preparation, your CEO may not be the best person to communicate about a crisis.

Be honest but reassuring.  While difficult to do amid fast-paced chaos, empathetic leaders find a balance between being transparent about the situation, as dire as it may be, and providing stakeholders with the calm reassurance they need. For example, when Mark Rutte, prime minister of the Netherlands, addressed his country about COVID-19, he frankly stated, “My message to you this evening is not an easy one to hear,” but he ended his speech with, “Together we will get through this difficult period. Take care of each other. I’m counting on you.” Rutte didn’t sugar-coat the situation or make any false promises; instead, he spoke candidly about the tough road ahead and reassured his citizens by instilling solidarity.

Few things can make someone feel like you genuinely care about them more than by showing empathy, particularly when times are tough. Leaders who express empathy will earn trust, minimize fear, and build unity -- helping all to get through the crisis together.

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