Empathy and Leadership

Episode 12: The Sage Power of Empathy


How do you motivate or correct mistakes in yourself or others? My self-talk used to be brutal, worse than anything I would say to anyone else. I didn’t realize that lashing out made me feel sorry for myself, more defensive, and killed my creativity, courage, and willpower.



When we think of the textbook definition of empathy, we think of it as our ability to imagine what someone else is experiencing, to take on their perspective. It’s easy to see how this can increase our compassion and understanding for others and thus how it can strengthen our relationships.


Let’s try a thought experiment. Think of a relationship where you feel strong compassion for the other. This may be a child, a parent, a dear friend or co-worker. It might even be a pet. Now imagine a time when that person had a simply awful day or was injured and is really feeling down. What did you say to them? How did you interact with them? …. What feelings came up as you considered this? What did you want the other person to know?


Myth: We have to be hard on ourselves in order to succeed

When we feel beat up, we spend more time and energy feeling sorry for ourselves or defending ourselves, rather than creating solutions. We instinctively know this for those we love unconditionally. Mental fitness training helps us develop that same empathy for ourselves. Our saboteurs would have us believe that we have to be hard on ourselves or we’ll never improve. We get the idea that the best way to avoid mistakes in the future is to beat the heck out of ourselves when we make a mistake today. In contrast, our sage knows that we can be successful AND happy at the same time.


In my Science of Willpower Program there’s a great case study that debunks that saboteur myth. Carleton University in Canada tracked procrastination in their students for an entire semester. Many students put off studying for their first exam. Those who were hardest on themselves for procrastinating were more likely to procrastinate on their next exams. It’s seems so counterintuitive, but the students who forgave themselves and showed self-compassion, rather than beating themselves up, procrastinated much less than those who used guilt as a motivation strategy. This data shows that being empathetic and understanding with ourselves is a good strategy for improving our own performance.


Simple Ways to Increase Self Empathy

First, think about that person or pet that you feel great unconditional love for. When you’ve had a hard day or made a mistake, speak to yourself as you would speak to them. A second way is to imagine yourself as a 3-year-old, and you’ve broke your arm while playing. Would you scold yourself or focus on nurturing yourself back to health? These strategies become more accessible the more we practice them.


Empathy and Leadership

We all know of leaders who purposely hold people’s feet to the fire to motivate them and keep them on their game. In small doses this can be an effective management technique. But if it’s overused, there are a few unintended consequences. First, if your people’s feet are already in the fire, you have no lever left when something goes really wrong. The heat is already on, so you can’t turn up the heat to get a response. And second, when people are living in fear, they focus on avoiding punishment instead of creating innovative solutions. You end up with people playing small and just trying to fly under the radar. Practicing empathy will help you avoid these pitfalls.


It’s so important to have a broad range of leadership techniques that we can call upon depending on the circumstances and the individuals we’re leading. We’ve discussed how challenging it can be to have self-empathy and to forgive ourselves. As a leader, you have an opportunity to model this by showing compassion for yourself and your team. It’s not only a powerful leadership skill, it’s also a gift to yourself and the human beings you work with.


As Wendy and I mapped out how to present the five sage powers, we made a deliberate choice to talk about the power of empathy last. It may be the most difficult for people to acknowledge as a superpower. But it really is foundational to mental fitness and to intercepting the damaging judge and other saboteurs. Empathy is a prerequisite for curiosity, creativity, and laser-focused, purpose-driven action.


Self-empathy is rarely reinforced or taught in American culture, so there’s a real gap here. Our mental fitness training programs are designed to help you develop the habits of mind that enable all these sage strengths so you can use them with yourself and in your interactions with others to increase productivity, improve relationships and live a happier life. It’s so impactful that we often recommend that teams and even family members go through this program together. It creates a common language and understanding which is so helpful when working to create new habits and behaviors. I’d love to explore with you how to bring these concepts into your life or your organization. Maybe grab a virtual coffee?


For now I encourage you to put this to the test. Experiment with self-forgiveness and compassion and let me know what you experience!

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