Empathetic Leadership Lessons from Grandad, Schumacher & Leeds Utd

Leadership, News

As the pandemic embers progressively dim, studies into workplace trends reveal a worrying development. Employees are regaining confidence in their organisation’s future, yet adverse retention is on the rise. The loss of good leaders, dedicated people, and key skills, negatively influences culture, strategic implementation, and bottom-line results.

As leaders, how we deal with these next stages will be key to maintaining trust, retaining talent, and scoring highly on key employee experience metrics, that for many organisations, were ravaged by COVID-19. The studies around employee experience also reveal that ‘employees have come to expect empathy, but that empathetic leadership has been difficult for managers to sustain’. Consequently, we are at risk of disconnect between leadership and workforce. Herein lies a clue to solving this worrisome surge in employee churn.

Empathy as a mechanism for retention

Over my 14 or so years at Dale Carnegie Training, I have become progressively more persuaded that leadership empathy is one of the consistent attributes in thriving people centred business cultures. Growing up, I was fortunate to emulate two role models who embodied empathy and applied it to their relationships: my father and grandfather. Both had successful careers, yet it was their people skills that defined them. My grandfather Gordan had an innate ability to make people feel special and leave them a little better than when he found them. He did this free of pomp, operating through a genuine humility which enabled him to relate to people and their challenges and make them feel valued.

Defining empathy

Unlike sympathy, empathy involves placing ourselves in the other person’s shoes and being able to relate to their situation. Having ‘worn the t-shirt’ we may have faced similar challenges. Relatability is key for the leaders we develop and coach as they strive to understand how to unleash talent in others and spend more time leading, rather than doing. Standing back and letting teams tackle challenges to learn, while doing so with empathy, enables us to enhance trust and strengthen our resolve to act as an effective leader.

We can look to sport for a couple of examples, one good and the other, well… not so much!

For the latter instance, enter my beloved Leeds United. It is well documented that LUFC, until recently, spent 16 years outside the premier league. Many times, this has made for tough viewing. Struggles on field have mirrored poor business decisions off field, many made by leadership structures unable to empathise with beleaguered supporters. Finally, after many iterations, we finally have leaders, including my hero Marcelo Bielsa, who understand the importance of developing a culture that unifies and connects with the faithful. There’s still a way to go, but things are looking up.

Schumacher’s F1 reign  

More successful was Michael Schumacher and his leadership at Ferrari F1. While not my first choice of sports viewing, I marvel at the engineering and sheer excitement of F1. As a youth in the 90s, I observed Schumacher dominate and remember thinking it was almost a little boring that he won all the time – something like Lewis Hamilton today. Nevertheless, there is a reason for their dominance. Their ability to succeed is in no small part due to a common aptitude to empathise and relate to others.

In the Netflix documentary ‘Schumacher’, the German legend’s ability to take a genuine interest in his team and their work was mesmerising. Former bosses spoke of his enthusiasm in such a way, it left me in no doubt that this champion had the qualities we so often speak about at Dale Carnegie, enthusiasm, dedication and showing genuine care for colleagues.

As Ross Brawn, a former team principle, said of Schumacher. ‘You get carried away by his enthusiasm. You know you don’t want to let him down, and so does everyone in the team. His hunger for success motivated people. He taught me an important lesson in this respect and showed me how to create the right atmosphere in a team.’

The pattern follows that those leadership teams who can role model empathy, then create that same culture through their organisation, can expect to see successful results. Empathetic leadership is no new-fangled idea; principles from Dale Carnegie’s classic book, ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’, place particular emphasis on simple, yet effective tools that leaders can apply as they look to show more empathy.

So, consider this my rallying cry for managers everywhere to develop and improve their overall sense of empathy so they can recognise the power of relationships and the human capacity to keep going in the face of an uncertain future. Here’s some practical resources for developing empathy:

Nathan McNee is a Director for Dale Carnegie Northern England. Highly committed to adding value to client relationships and bringing innovative solutions that are highly practical in their nature. A huge advocate for the Dale Carnegie values, his leadership within his own team and those he works with externally,enables others to model the same core values and behaviours.