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Every aspect of a business operation involves people. Regardless of your business’s area of specialization, people drive and influence the flow of events. People commit themselves to run with your vision as employees and partners. People trust your products and services, and thus become clients or customers. People spread the good news that is your brand, and thus become business promoters. Therefore, it is essential that you understand the transforming power of empathy in leadership.

As a business leader, you may find that your concerns tilt towards the measurable elements of your business – how much growth has the company experienced within a period, how can revenue be increased without affecting the value of services and products?

However, despite what the commercial industry looks to advertise, leading a business may be more than rendering services, preparing goals and visions, or making profits. Viewing leadership through the lens of the people means you are mindful of how they feel. Maya Angelou puts it this way, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

What Maya Angelou reminds us is that, whether we choose to or not, whether we are deliberate about it or not, we leave impressions on people. This is especially true for business leaders.

A Case Study on Empathy and Kindness

Two decades ago Oprah Winfrey was on trial for a misinterpreted remark. The hectic procedure left her exhausted. She was at the courthouse everyday for eight hours, and she spent the evenings taping episodes of The Oprah Show. Since the trial held in an unfamiliar city, and with everyone seemingly wanting her to lose, she was very lonely.

It was on one of such lonely mornings that an anonymous lady handed her a card with the message, “Hang in there. I’m praying for you.” Oprah did hang in, and she believes this act of kindness has allowed her identify with people involved in public scandals.

Acts of kindness originates from a place of empathy. When you identify with the experiences of others, validating their emotions and feelings, you show that you care about who they are, and not simply what they have to offer.

Of empathy, Oprah Winfrey said, “Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.”

How does this help you as a business leader? You could start by watching out for the experiences of the people within your leadership influence. Are they happy? How can you improve their wellbeing, emotionally and physically? Do they find satisfaction in their job descriptions? Could you identify with their feelings and help them work through it? You won’t always have to give a gift. Empathy isn’t a souvenir handed over at the end of every month, or bonus checks for a successful performance.

Oprah Winfrey, in those moments of vulnerability, only needed a reminder that she wasn’t alone. As one successful in business and life, Oprah is committed to generous giving. Once, on a trip to Morehouse College (to celebrate the anniversary of her endowed fund for the school), she stopped to chat with two freshmen and found out one of them had a phone with a cracked screen. The next day, someone from Oprah’s team told the freshman he was getting a new phone from Oprah.

The crucial thing wasn’t that Oprah replaced the man’s device, but that she could give her time to chat with the boys. This exemplifies her opinion that, “leadership is about…having the ability to relate to and connect with people…”

Crossing The Generational Gulf

Patricia Moore is remembered for her daring social experiment on “experimental empathy.” As a product designer in the ‘70s, she disguised as an eighty-five year old woman, altering her facial appearance, her mobility, and even simulating arthritis. For three years, the twenty-six year old hobbled through cities in North America, living the experience of the aged – taking flight of stairs, opening and closing doors, all under her guise.

The experience led to the invention of several products for use by elders, most of which are still in use today. Moore realized that one could not claim to understand the experience of another,

without living the experience. She has been recognized for her interest in the aged, and has been dubbed one of the 40 Most Socially Conscious Designers in the world.

Given, not every leader would be an Oprah. Only a handful of us would have to disguise as belonging to another age group. But we can be deliberate about the experiences of others, and thus find ways to reach out to them.

For instance, you could decide to do a “role swap”: if you’re the CEO of your company, you can spend a day or two working at the factory, mingling with the workers. Or you could volunteer to stay back and clean the office and make observations about how the cleaners are being treated.

And if you would rather not get your hands dirty, how about a “religion swap”: if you practice one religion, attend a couple of services of neighboring religions. Get to understand their worldview, their opinions, and how this may impart their work experience, or their relational skills. You’d observe that communication gets easier, because now you can see beyond the difference and establish common grounds.

There are many more ways you can show empathy as a leader. We all need some more empathy in our lives. Moore believes that empathy is knowing that “one size does not fit all.” So rather than be concerned strictly about how an improvement in services can produce significant returns for your company, seek to use empathy as a tool towards understanding others, impacting others. That, certainly, is a lot better.

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