Leading with Empathy

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When we think about the characteristics of a charitable organization – a “public benefit” corporation (that’s the official IRS moniker for charitable nonprofits) – elephants may not immediately come to mind. But for those of you who are familiar with research about elephants, you’ll know what I’m about to share and why I’m suggesting that nonprofit leaders should try to be more like elephants. A defining characteristic about elephants is that they treat one another with empathy. And right now, treating others as we would like to be treated ourselves feels very important.

It also just so happens that psychologists and leadership gurus believe empathy is part of the recipe for successful leadership. In fact, empathy has surfaced in recent research as the most important of five qualities that define successful leaders in today’s digital and global economy. (Others include: adaptability, cultural competence, 360-degree thinking, and intellectual curiosity). Think of leaders you know who exhibit empathy. They may also be competitive, bold, and even “tough” – but they generally radiate compassion, and never lose an opportunity to promote well-being in others. These attributes make such leaders more pleasant to work with, but they also contribute to the success – and future sustainability - of the organizations they lead. As we also know from research on the emerging generations of nonprofit leaders, the now-80-million-strong Millennials value collaboration, work-life balance, and contributing to the social good.

How can nonprofit leaders develop the skills of leading with empathy? We can learn a lot from elephants. Elephants console each other in times of death, loss, and distress. They come together in “bunches” when one of them is threatened – to provide protection to their colleague, and in a fascinating display of human-like (or perhaps we are elephant-like) behavior, elephants have been observed adjusting their own emotional state to match what their buddies are feeling. Sounds a lot like reflective listening to me.

Serving others well, and creating an environment that attracts diverse, talented people to be part of it, depends on understanding a perspective different from your own – “walking in another’s shoes,” as the saying goes. We need empathy to consider what sort of workplace practices will attract and retain talent; to draft grant proposals (“What is that foundation thinking?”); to write a really compelling appeal letter (“What will encourage someone to donate?”) and, of course, to collaborate effectively with our colleagues, partner organizations, and those we hope to serve.  Empathy is the driving force behind human centered design, and virtual reality’s effectiveness for fundraising. Empathy is even being used as a strategy to defeat terrorism. And it is a fundamental driving force behind the generosity  of charitable giving – after all, the word “philanthropy” means love of humankind. In at least one dictionary “philanthropy” is defined as an “altruistic concern for human welfare and advancement.”

Psychologists tell us that we are not born with empathy – that it is a learned trait. Here are  ways nonprofit leaders can “practice” empathy every day inspired by these suggestions from executive coaches published by Forbes.

  1. Listen. Really listen. To your colleagues, to your supporters, to your volunteers, and above all, of course, to those you serve. (Tip: Watch this YouTube video on reflective listening.)
  2. Ask clarifying questions before moving forward based on what could be erroneous assumptions. “Oh, so what I heard you say is _______. Is that correct?”
  3. Make sure those who are giving you advice know that their advice is being heard. They will feel valued and confident enough to give you even more candid advice next time!
  4. Manage expectations and be transparent about challenges. Do you feel as if you are at risk of overpromising and underdelivering? Explain. Let others see how fast you’re peddling and how many balls you are juggling. By letting them into your world, you are helping them develop empathy.
  5. Find your humility. Every day. We can all learn something new every day. From everyone.
  6. Spend some time yourself with those your nonprofit’s mission serves. You know that the best way to secure lifelong and loyal volunteers and donors is to help them see the impact your nonprofit is making. Do your staff and board members see it? Can they feel it? What experiences can you offer to others allowing them to connect deeply with the mission? Have you experienced that for yourself?
  7. Listen, don’t look. When your teammates are speaking to you, where are your eyes? Are they listening too? (or looking at a screen.) ‘Nuf said.
  8. Give yourself a break. Literally. Your wellness is important for the health of the organization you lead. Learn how to listen to your body, and treat it right.
  9. Make a date with a funder to learn from each other. What if you started by asking a program officer, “How can we be a resource for your foundation?” instead of asking for a grant? Might that encourage the foundation to ask you the same question back? 
  10.  Share the leadership mantle from time to time. You don’t always have to be the one leading meetings. Encouraging other teammates to facilitate (and letting them do so in their own voice and with their own style) models inclusiveness, and grows future leaders. Plus, it will give you a fresh perspective on what it feels like to be in a meeting led by someone else.

I’m sure there are many other ways you can think of to develop empathy both for your own leadership and for your organization’s role in the community. Lead with empathy. Our world needs more of it.  


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