Many people think that the business world is that of sharks. Many movies have reinforced this idea. The successful leader should be heartless and selfish. In my field, that of competitiveness, the rule of the game would be to eliminate others. Yet the opposite is true. Being sensitive to people’s feelings is the source of success.

“We need leaders who can empathize… because you can be both empathetic and strong”. Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, put it this way. “People need authenticity, not manufactured ideas. We have placed over time so much emphasis on notions of assertiveness and strength that we probably have assumed that you cannot have those other qualities of kindness and empathy”. With 65% positive opinions, she may be right…

Empathy is the recognition and understanding of the feelings and emotions of others. According to Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University, there are two kinds of empathy. One that consists of understanding how others function and another that allows us to share emotions during exceptional events.

In 1903, when King Edward VII of Great Britain made an official visit to Paris, the initial reception was glacial. But after a few hours, thanks to many gracious and tactful speeches – and therefore empathy – he had charmed everybody. The Entente Cordiale was to be signed shortly afterwards. When he left, the crowd shouted “Long live our king! ” a remarkable accomplishment in France…

It is also because Benjamin Franklin had captivated the Parisian elite during his stay in 1776 that he could seal the alliance between France and the nascent United States. Otherwise, French troops may not have helped the young nation become independent. History would have been different.

Tom Peters, the author of the famous book In Search of Excellence, stressed in another book (The Little Big Things) that the real power was not in aggressiveness and management by Excel spreadsheet but empathy. It leads to the small daily attentions that make the difference. They create what we call today social capital or living well together.

Empathy does not exclude having strong convictions, well-defined objectives and a reliable value system. Numerous studies show that an authoritarian leader who knows where he is going is more respected than a soft, uncertain leader. It may explain Donald Trump’s success, even though most people who vote for him would hate to work with him.

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Yet, these same authoritarian leaders will also emphasize the necessary empathy with clients. You must be able to “enter their world,” as Warren Bennis, the great professor of leadership, put it. However, it is surprising that the empathy recommended for customers seems to be less advisable for employees.

One of the significant advantages of empathy is that leaders do not cut themselves off from crucial information in the company. When a leader is harsh and insensitive, employees tend to seek what will please him rather than tell him the truth. In other words, if there is an issue, it is his problem, and he is on his own. Hence, quite often, these leaders are the last to be aware when a major crisis happens.

Then, there is the big question: is being an empathetic leader a specifically feminine quality? Some of the countries that have best fought the Covid-19 epidemic are led by women: Germany, Finland, Taiwan, Iceland, Denmark, and New Zealand. All these leaders also have in common to be very popular.

It would be excessive to state that men are incapable of empathy. Joe Biden, Justin Trudeau or Emmanuel Macron have built their success on their ability to reach others. But it is true that, in general, a male leader will tend to consider empathy to be a weakness. It is better to be wholesome and tough.

Not all the time. Christmas is a religious and cultural holiday. But it is also commemorated around the world in countries that do not share the same values as Western countries. Perhaps it is because Christmas is also, in the end, a celebration of empathy? There is a universal thrust of reaching out to others, being sensitive to their problems and trying to help them.

The views expressed in the article are that of the author and not of the publisher nonnewz.com or its management.

This article is authored by Prof. Stephane Garelli- Professor at IMD business school – Professor at University Lausanne – Chairman Le Temps newspaper
The views expressed in this article are of the author and not necessarily the views of the publisher.

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