The Big E

E is for Empathy

Jim Collins uses the metaphor of the business as the bus and the leader as the bus driver in his book, Good to Great.1 He emphasises that all great leaders should continuously ask “First Who, Then What?” Getting the right people on the bus and in the right seats is crucial to the success of the business. This translates into having the right people who will perform in your key strategic roles. Make it non-negotiable to hire, retain and develop exceptional talent. However, exceptional talent requires exceptional leadership. Jim Collins states how “Level 5 leaders embody a paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will. They are ambitious, to be sure, but ambitious first and foremost for the company, not themselves. [They] setup their successors for even greater success in the next generation.”

Inspirational leaders create organisations and brands that people want to be part of. The single most powerful trait that these leaders have is empathy. Empathy works in two ways, the first is affective or emotional empathy which is the state that results from emotional contagion, our unconscious auto-response to another’s emotion. The ability to empathise appropriately as well as purposefully trigger positive emotional contagions requires remarkable self-awareness and personal state management in the leader.

The second kind of empathy is cognitive empathy which refers to the complex understanding of how people feel and behave, the ability to see things from their perspective. This kind of empathy involves a natural curiosity about the people. An intense learning and thinking about the lives of others with observation and without prejudices.

Great leaders who lead with empathy benefit the business in multiple ways. They bring their teams closer, increasing positive emotion from increased support and reduced discrimination. They broaden the size of their own map, strengthening their strategy by taking on and considering many more perspectives. Naturally, they become more insightful and increasingly instinctive to the unconscious needs of both their teams and their customers.

An empathetic driver is able to navigate the twists and turns of the road, will steer the bus smoothly and efficiently over bumps and around pot holes. They will be able to speed up and slow down appropriately through the varying neighbourhoods, enough to understand the individual nuances, challenges and unconscious unmet emotional needs of their customers.

In keeping with the bus analogy, most organisations fail to realise that their customers are on other vehicles, moving through their lives on their own smooth or bumpy journeys. They fail to see customers as human, depersonalising them by categorising them purely by statistics – age, race, nationality and earnings. It is empathy that expands the awareness of the leader to allow a more psychodynamic view addressing the seemingly irrational and emotional into their customer experience.

In his book, Empathetic Marketing2, business psychologist Mark Ingwer suggests introducing new metrics to evaluate the return. “Business has always focused on return on investment (ROI) as the primary metric to calculate success. However, innovations in the neurosciences and developments in social media have revealed that profitability should no longer be relegated to sales figures and profit margins alone. Increasingly, to create sustainable customer relationships, businesses must attend to innovations in psychology, and invest in the emotional needs of their customers. Those making this shift will gain a significant ROE — return on empathy.”

In Summary

  • Focus on recruiting and retaining the right people, this will cost you in patience to find the right person and in getting rid of the wrong people that will slow the bus down.
  • Take responsibility for your own emotions. Emotional intelligence can be taught and practiced. Find out how your EQ score and areas of development.
  • In order to develop empathy, you must first strengthen self-awareness and state-management as well as sharpening up on your verbal and on-verbal communication.
  • Introduce 360 feedback to find out more about your behaviours that are outside of your awareness.
  • Practice humility and role modelling to strengthen those traits you wish to develop in others. Remember, emotions are contagious so through practice and demonstration you will trigger positive and productive behaviours.
  • Review all business processes and reporting to create space for a new framework that realigns the entire organisation to the customer’s emotional needs.


  1. James C. Collins, Good To Great, New York: Harper Collins, 2001
  2. Mark Ingwar, Empathetic Marketing, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012