Guest Column | June 13, 2024

Leading With Heart: The Power Of Empathy In Leadership

By Laryssa Wozniak, Senior Director, Global Marketing, Immunovant

Laryssa Wozniak_Immunovant
Laryssa Wozniak

Businesses large and small pay handsomely each year to send their executives to rigorous leadership training and development. They come back with new skills and capabilities in areas like data-driven decision-making or working with artificial intelligence.

In our tech-driven age, it’s increasingly rare for executives to spend time deliberately focused on what I see as one of the must-have leadership qualities: empathy.

While empathy is increasingly touted as an important leadership quality, it is often undervalued in practice — a reality I have encountered numerous times throughout my career.

I’m proud that more than one of my colleagues has called me “caring.” And yet, I know what should be a badge of honor can veer into the territory of “too nice” in the opinion of others.

I flatly reject the idea. I don’t think empathy should be equated with weakness — quite the opposite.

I have learned that we often receive numerous cues about how a leader should act, and these cues are frequently, and subconsciously, masculine-coded. Traditional leadership models emphasize traits such as assertiveness, decisiveness, and dominance — characteristics commonly associated with masculinity. However, effective leadership is not confined to these traits alone. Through my experiences, I have learned how leaders can develop their own unique leadership styles, including leadership models that prioritize empathy.

Leading Like Your People Matter

When I look back on my experiences, I see that empathy has been a cornerstone of my career. I’ve tried to remember those words of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”

Over ten years ago, when I was a field leader at a large company, we were preparing for a significant launch. Around the same time, the company completely revamped our performance evaluation system, shifting the focus from sales contributions to the quality of customer engagements.

This change, though well-intentioned, was challenging. Our team thrived on understanding their direct contributions to the business, which was a key motivator. Shifting the focus was not easy.

A few months in, a team member who had been with the company for many years resigned, in large part due to the new system.

As with many organizations, mine had protocols for cascading these types of announcements. Understandably, you want to make sure you share the news with all relevant stakeholders in a timely manner: communicating it in a way that helps minimize disruption. But you also don’t want to unintentionally create a charged environment by neglecting possible concerns and frustrations silently brewing on your team. That’s where empathy comes in. During the next team call, I made the announcement of his departure, which was followed by dead silence for what felt like an eternity. Despite having a business agenda for this meeting, I decided to set it aside. Instead, I asked the team to share what was on their minds and what they were feeling.

Gradually, people began to speak up. They were frustrated and needed to vent. I realized my role in that conversation was to listen, understand, and let them express their feelings. I became a fly on the wall, simply absorbing their emotions and concerns, many of which I shared.

Amazingly, the very next day, everything seemed somewhat back to normal. That one meeting, which would normally have been an hour-long session focused on business, turned into a crucial moment for the team to clear the air. They just needed the opportunity to express their frustrations.

This experience taught me the importance of empathy in leadership. Sometimes, the best way to lead is to listen and provide space for others to voice their concerns. By acknowledging and addressing the team's emotions that day, we were able to move forward more effectively the next day and regain our focus on the task at hand.

The Anti-Empathy Bias

Over the years, I observed a trend in my performance reviews where leaders acknowledged me as warm and caring.

I was proud that so many others consistently used these terms to describe me. But in time, I realized they also carried more than a whiff of bias.

Comments like "You're a very caring person, you're easy to talk to, and you listen and understand" often made me question if people doubted my ability to get the job done. Depending on who this feedback came from, I sensed a misconception that because I was willing to listen and help, I might struggle to make or communicate tough decisions when necessary.

This perception suggested that caring individuals might be seen as "yes" people — those who can agree and provide support but aren't the first choice when a difficult call needs to be made. Yet, the feedback was so consistent; it was clearly a reflection of who I was as a person. And so, I realized that I needed to change my mindset.

By reframing my perspective on this feedback, I found that being caring and empathetic could actually be a significant advantage. These qualities made me approachable and helped me build strong, trusting relationships, which in turn created a network of support across the different companies I worked for.

I also found that empathy improved my judgment rather than hampering it. Understanding my colleagues on a deeper level — knowing their priorities, concerns, and motivations — allowed me to make more informed and educated decisions and even deliver tough news in a way that put people first. This awareness has turned unconscious biases into conscious considerations that I could address and manage.

Empathy in leadership is a gift that keeps on giving. I consider it a trust builder: the relationships I've built with empathy and care have lasted over 20 years. I can still pick up the phone and call these people, and they will have my back, and I will always have theirs, no matter the circumstances. This enduring support speaks volumes about the power of empathy in leadership.

By valuing empathy, I've been able to foster strong, lasting connections that enhance both personal and professional growth. It's a reminder that being a caring leader doesn't diminish one's ability to make tough decisions; instead, it enriches the decision-making process with a deeper understanding of the people involved.

Empathizing AND Leading

I suggest several strategies for leveraging empathy as a leadership asset while maintaining a strong leadership presence.

  • First, leverage curiosity. Ask questions to understand where people are coming from, including their cultural circumstances, personal values, past experiences, and the list goes on. Context is everything.
  • Second, build a support system of people who appreciate the softer qualities, like empathy, and can help advocate for this trait. You will know who they are because you will likely find it easier to connect with them. If making those first connections feels challenging, it is important to reflect on the reasons why. It might stem from fear — fear of rejection, perception, or the personality types around you. Breaking the ice by taking the first step to reach out can be tough but essential.
  • Third, patiently listen and observe. Whereas curiosity comes in handy when people are either reluctant to volunteer information or offer sufficient context, helpful clues can surface when least expected. You may learn something about someone by reading visual cues or offering a safe space for them to express their thoughts uninterrupted.

Empathy is not a weakness but a powerful leadership tool that, when harnessed effectively, can lead to greater authenticity, improved relationships, and better outcomes in the workplace.

My career serves as a testament to the strength and value of empathetic leadership. By embracing empathy, leaders can foster genuine connections and drive success in their organizations.

About The Author:

Laryssa Wozniak is an entrepreneurial and growth-oriented commercial leader with over 20 years of experience in the biopharmaceutical industry. She is currently the Senior Director of Marketing at Immunovant.