What Happens When Bosses Refuse to Unlock Their Empathy

Good leaders don’t try to be superheroes, instead connecting with their employees and considering their needs and input.

A stern-looking man presides over an office meeting where others look concerned.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

“When we were in MBA school, my husband and I had an instructor who said, ‘When you become a CEO, many of the relationships and friendships established along the years will of necessity change. You’ll need to focus on what is of benefit to the organization. Period. Call it being a superhero, or whatever name you select, but you’ve got to separate your emotions from a clear vision of the company, and there is no room for decisions influenced by empathy.’

“I never forgot that statement and thought it was harsh, cruel and void of humanity. But now that my husband is being groomed for CEO in our automobile parts business, it seems that he is advocating that position — discussing it at home for the time being — and it scares me. Do you know of something he can read that might open his eyes a bit to 2023 reality? He needs to know pitfalls to avoid, how not to behave and realize that validating emotions and empathy is important. Thanks, Sherry.’”

Indeed, I do. It is The Unlocked Leader: Dare to Free Your Own Voice, Lead with Empathy, and Shine Your Light in the World by executive leadership coach Hortense le Gentil (with Caroline Lambert).

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I had a delightful chat with le Gentil and found The Unlocked Leader a useful tool to help free leaders who are caught in that same “superhero” mind-trap propaganda.

In a nutshell, le Gentil’s philosophy can be summed up this way, according to her book: “Today’s business world needs people who lead with empathy, vulnerability and authenticity. Sadly, many still believe the outdated myth of ‘the superhero leader’ who is infallible, unflappable and fearless, their innate ability to inspire remaining locked within.”

Six things good leaders shouldn’t do

We talked about six things the “superhero leader” does that harms organizations:

1. Showing up at meetings and giving orders instead of asking questions.

Consequences: You will fail to connect with people, and your teams will not be motivated. The world has changed. Employees’ expectations have changed. So if you just give your orders or state whatever you need without giving people a chance to connect with you, then there is no human connection.

So maybe half of your employees will do what you asked, but they won’t do it with the same energy, the same happiness that they would have if you had considered their needs and sought their input. So, the consequences are you’ll lose your best talent because they are going to find another company where they can be engaged, empowered, seen and considered — especially the younger generation.

2. Pretending to be someone else or not being authentic.

Consequences: If you are afraid to be yourself, you cannot be authentic. Down-to-earth people need and want to connect with a leader, and they won’t if they feel that you are fake. You don’t need to be a copy of somebody else. People can feel it when you fail to be yourself. If they don’t engage with you, follow you or trust you, they’re not going to do what they need to do.

You might very well have some excellent ideas, but if they think you’re a phony, employees will reject those ideas.

3. Blaming your team.

Consequences: This signals that you do not value people and are unfair, and it’s demotivating. No one will want to collaborate with you. When things are going well, this type of leader says, “It’s because of me.” But when something goes wrong, “It’s because of the team.” The price is a loss of talent.

4. Believing that you have all the answers.

Consequences: This type of thinking leads to frustration, failure and burnout. It doesn’t allow your team to meaningfully contribute and stifles their potential. It is outdated thinking and impossible to have all the answers in today’s world — it is too complex, with new uncertainty arising every day.

5. Not setting boundaries with what you share or oversharing personal details.

Consequences: Empathy is the ability to put yourself in others’ shoes. Practicing empathy is a two-way street in that when you reveal your true self, it enables you to connect with your clients, shareholders, stakeholders, customers and team.

However, boundaries are important. You don’t have to share everything about yourself. You need to determine what you are going to say before you say it. Ask yourself, “Is this aspect of my personality, my past, helpful for others to know?”

6. Failing to lead with humanity, refusing to trust your team and considering validation, praise and valuing input as unnecessary.

Consequences: You will create the exact opposite of what the business community needs today: engaged teams, stellar results and a low attrition rate.

The Unlocked Leader is that shot of vitamin B12 for the mind that my reader Sherry should read with her husband. It is like having your very own management coach and drill sergeant rolled up in one enjoyable read.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield, Calif., and welcomes comments and questions from readers, which may be faxed to (661) 323-7993, or e-mailed to Lagombeaver1@gmail.com. And be sure to visit dennisbeaver.com.

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This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

H. Dennis Beaver, Esq.
Attorney at Law, Author of "You and the Law"

After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."