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The Richard Branson School of Empathy

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5 ways to gain a leadership edge through empathy

Sir Richard Branson is one of the most respected and admired business leaders of our generation. There are countless positive leadership traits that can be associated to him, but his empathetic leadership style is something that definitely makes him different to many other high profile leaders.

“Respect is how to treat everyone, not just those you want to impress.”
~ Richard Branson

Empathy in the field of leadership is a term that is often misunderstood and mistaken for ‘sympathy’. There is a general perception of empathy being a ‘fluffy’ soft skill aligned to leaders who care too much about how people feel rather than getting results. Nothing could be further from the truth. Successful leadership is heavily reliant on mastering effective, positive conversations and developing interpersonal relationships. And if you look closely at how tightly connected interaction skills and job performance are, it’s easy to see why empathy is so important. Without empathy, we can’t build a team or nurture a new generation of leaders.

As the saying goes: “People don’t care about how much you know, until they know how much you care.” If you can’t show a person that you genuinely care about them, you will have trouble inspiring them. Caring for your team is not the same as complying to their desires and making them happy; just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t mean you have to give them what they want. Take a genuine interest in the people around you; leadership is when you become aware of how people around you are going ongoingly.

“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.”
~ Margaret Mead

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Following are 5 ways to gain a leadership edge through empathy:

Empathy Edge #1 - Show compassion

Place yourself in the other person’s shoes. Sometimes, all that people need is a warm smile, or even a pat on the hand or shoulder. Communicate with them in a warm, patient manner. They need to see that you are on their side (even if that side turns out to be doing the opposite of what they want). Lighten their load with small acts of kindness. But make sure you are assessing how they would feel in their shoes, not how you would feel in their shoes. This is the tricky part.

Empathy Edge #2 - Be considerate

Listen without judging or shaming, and give those around you your full attention. Do not get distracted, listen with your eyes; ask questions, seek to understand and make comments like “I understand” to give them reassurance. Being there for your team and to be their sounding board is sometimes all that is needed.

Empathy Edge #3 - Make them feel good about themselves

People rarely remember what you did, but they will remember how you made them feel.  Notice what you like about others and tell them. Personally acknowledge and commend people on their efforts and achievements. Paying those compliments and noticing little things will give your employees hope, and encourage them to excel again and again.

Empathy Edge # 4 - Build positive emotions

Experiencing positive emotions broadens our thinking, fuels our resilience, builds resourcefulness, triggers an upward spiral toward optimal functioning, improves our health, and is contagious (especially those of the leader). Teaching your employees how to overwrite negative emotions with positive ones gives them all of the above and much more, not only at work but also in their personal lives. It shows your employees that you truly care for them.

Empathy Edge #5 - Don’t take advantage

It is easier to ask your team to work overtime if it is only occurring every now and again and for a specific time period. You should also roll up your sleeves and share the load; inspirational and successful leaders do not ask their team to do what they themselves are not willing to do. Ensure that your employees are paid adequately, and the salary correlates to the amount of work expected of them.  The workload should be reasonable; expecting too much and setting unrealistic targets causes stress and anxiety which prohibits productivity and causes employees to resent their leader.


Amongst an increased presence of machines and electronics in our personal and professional lives, the ability to understand and share others’ feelings remains uniquely human. Empathy will continue to be THE standout leadership skill companies require so they can successfully overcome the challenges advanced technologies pose to people, employees and consumers.

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