Should leaders be empathetic or firm?

Empathetic leaders are in high demand in the US. In the Nordic countries however, where empathy is an aspect of leadership, the debate is instead if leaders have become too compassionate.

leadership, empathy, firm, tough, Harvard Business Review,
How empathetic should a leader be? Will future leaders be compassionate or firm?

Is the grass always greener on the other side?

It seems you can’t win. Isn’t it interesting that when empathetic leadership is the norm, it’s benefits are being questioned while in countries with less considerate leadership styles it’s considered ideal? Some Americans even go as far as stating that the era of empathy is upon us.

Empathy a handicap?

In the Nordic countries empathy has long been part of management. Leaders have had to be considerate, weather they wanted to or not. Now however, some Scandinavians argue that being considerate is a weakness because it makes it hard to be firm and take tough decisions.

The ideal US boss is empathetic

Harvard Business Review concluded that empathy is high currency for a leader as is softer and more compassionate leadership styles. When it comes to CEOs being considerate, understanding and sympathise with employees and their feelings is considered optimal.

If you google empathic leader and empathetic leadership you get about 6,500 hits. And in general they are about leaders needing to be more considerate. The author Daniel Pink in his book “A whole new mind” writes that in the future empathy will be crucial for success.

Scandinavia a step further?

So have Sweden and Norway with their generally speaking more empathetic leaders taken the debate a step further by questioning if it’s a handicap? Or is it a step back to question if leadership have become to considerate?

Some claim that considerate leaders worry too much and can even be negatively affected by their environment as a result. If so, does that handicap them as leaders?

It’s common sense that leadership is facilitated by compassion. But taking the current debate in Scandinavia into account, maybe empathy combined with an ability to take tough decisions when necessary is ideal?

Most leaders either adopt a persona that’s excessively tough or overly empathetic, or feared or loved, if you like. Obviously neither leadership style is ideal. Maybe a leader focusing on helping other people to achieve their full potential would be best? A happy medium is obviously the ultimate but how many leaders are both compassionate and tough?

Do you believe empathy is an asset or a handicap for a leader? Will we see more empathetic leaders in the future? If so, will the considerate trend then, like in Scandinavia, be questioned because such leaders worry too much which has a negative effect on their ability to manage? What lies ahead for leadership? Will it, like it always has and still is, be a mix of different kinds of leadership styles? Empathetic – to be or not to be – that’s the question leaders have to ask themselves. Or maybe the debate about the ideal leader has gone to far? The different debates going on in the US and Nordic countries certainly makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s time to accept that leaders are different and empathy works for some and not for others?

Photo: Flickr -The White House

99 thoughts on “Should leaders be empathetic or firm?

  1. I really don't believe it can be an either-or answer, Catarina. Being emphatic without empathy – the style of the 80s US CEO – will lead to disaster. Being empathic and unable to be emphatic will lead to a loss of control.

    A good leader needs to know when to be more empathetic and when to be more emphatic. After all, the leader's role is to set the vision and describe the way this can be achieved, and then to lead the team towards this goal. Along the road both skills will be needed.

  2. In my mind, a leader can show empathy, but he must not forget he has also time to time to take difficult decision. A leader who want only face the positive and enjoyable part of the job will not be a good leader. But when he has to take a difficult decision, he will be maybe understand if he can justify why he has to take such decision, and if he can bring constructive solutions. Let's take the example of a leader who has to fire members of his team because the company is loosing money. By explaining why he has to fire people and why he has no other alternative, and by proposing to help them to find another job by making some recommendations, he will be probably considered as a leader showing empathy but facing also his responsibilities.
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  3. It's okay to be empathetiic and understanding, however leaders can not let that impact their decisions. I would like to think that the leaders in the U.S. are empathetic to what this economic recession has done to people, their homes, livelihoods and familiies but at the same time they can't make decisions based on 1 persons situation.

  4. I don't think I have ever worked for a CEO that had both qualities. I do believe you can have both qualities as you can make the tough decisions but be aware of the impact on others and show empathy. The company that came the closest with their leaders showing these qualities was Pfizer.
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  5. Dear Catarina,
    I find leadership types of more complexity than the alternative given here.
    I think that your understanding is that in nowadays world the leader is one person whereas the leadership in most companies and agencies, and in the world new order, as a matter of fact, has become more and more decentralized. You can find, there be crisis or not, two leaders playing the good cop bad cop roles: one is the deputy director getting to know people´s needs and being empathic with workers, and the other is the director knowing people through his/her deputy but taking some distance to be able to take tough decisions without any hesitasion where necessary.
    On the other hand, the grade of a leader´s empathy may vary depending on towards what kind of employee: thus, employees with a lower level of skills and/or potential may receive a lower grade of empathy because they are likely to misunderstand it and need more emphasis when receiving instructions.
    There is also another factor: My bet is that in todays competitive world and depending on the labor market (supply vs. demand) you can afford being more empathic or more emphatic as a leader.

  6. I suggest that there are, and we should recognise that there are, different leadership styles. There are also different situations which are more suited to one or other leadership style. This does not mean that people cannot learn from others’ leadership style, they can, but they must mould it to fit their values, personality and the situation.
    The main problem is ‘initiative extreme’. This is where any initiative is taken to extremes, beyond realism. The idea of empathetic leadership is taken a point where the lack of toughness undermines rather than enhances performance. Initiative extremism happens in all initiatives. There are endless examples of this extreme happening in other management initiatives over the years.

  7. Another example was Customer Relationship Management. The idea that getting close to the customer, understanding things from their perspective and finding profitable ways to meet their specific requirements would increase competitiveness and performance was powerful. Over time this was taken to an extreme of responding to every customer whim, chasing ever greater customer satisfaction scores to a level that Kaplan once called ‘customer obsessive’. Rather than enhancing performance through customer loyalty, many companies were reducing profitability.

  8. Glad you agree with me Yankee Texan Mom that being firm and take tough decisions is more important for a leader than empathy. Having said that a combination of both is definitely the best. But how many leaders does that apply to?

  9. Catarina, aloha. Yes, speaking from experience I know leaders can be both empathic and firm. Oftentimes where opinions are skewed in either direction is because of "outsiders" looking at it from their perspectives rather than being involved in the process. Had they been, they would have understood the reason for the decision/action.

    To me, a leader is someone who "leads," who influences the behavior of those around him/her in word and deed in a positive and ethical manner.

    Though I cannot speak at all for the Nordic countries, I know that all too often in corporate America, we have people in high level positions who are not true leaders rather they are managers. That distinction makes all the difference in the balance of empathy and firmness.

    Aloha. Janet

  10. Thank you for your kind offer Anthony. However, I'm sorry to let you know that I don't have guest posts since I write all articles myself. Once again, thank you for your interest.

  11. Hi Catarina, I believe a good leader can achieve balance between the two. I feel empathy is important, when managing people, but it's also important not to be soggy. A good leader can maintain a sense of strength at the same time.

    As a previous manager, particularly when I ran my own business and had a good sized staff, being empathetic to my staff worked well. They felt important, rather than just feeling as if they were a 'number' – BUT… they also knew that I wasn't a push over and knew what I expected.

    I really believe a true leader can walk the fine line.

  12. I am of the opinion that better leadership is a life-time process of trying to find the equilibrium between being emphatic & having empathy. To achieve this, a person has to be aware of his/her own strengths & weaknesses. Further, my observation is that the foundation of successful leadership is people skills (including empathy): people need to trust you, want to follow you and have experienced that you are truly concerned about them before they will follow you out of own choice.

    Then, when you have to be emphatic, they will accept your discipline or firmness much easier. Being firm with employees who dislikes you, usually results in high staff turn-over, disloyalty, low morale, decreased productivity and under achieving of an organization. If people feel oppressed, under-valued and 'bossed around', the will sooner or later find a way out of this negative situation.

  13. Caterina, nice case study in my opinion. My take on the issue is pretty simple and here's it;
    A leader that is worth his salt must be firm and emphatic! There must be a stricking balance. You can't be too firm, you can't be too emphatic and neither are you allowed to show any sign of weakness. If a leader merges this character together, he'll sure succeed.

    Thanks for this wonderful post! You're doing a great work here!


  14. An intiguing post indeed I would say!,

    When one asks about whether a leader should be empathic or not it is like asking one to choose which eye you rather live without the left or the right? Although we can still go on living with just either one of the eye but it certainly makes a huge difference having both eyes to see.

    Based on my experience dealing with leaders for that matter it warrants a difficult path when dealing with people. Regarless of the nature of an organization's background the fundamental thing is that it involves human. Be it political or aplolitical humans are involved and it doesn't take a rocket scientists to tell you interelationships invovlves feeling and it is and will be apart of our everyday life.

    Striking a balance between making bold descisions without considering human factor and with considering the later is not the question either as balance is not what is needed.

    The ultimatum is that, leaders should learn to be both and most important of all learning to have the ability to understand situations where you should give importance to being empathic and situations where you have to make bold descisions.

  15. Every time I hear "either/or" I shudder. You have posed an excellent and important research question. Boards that hire CEOs and hiring authorities deserve an evidence based perspective. That's one of the reasons I liked Good to Great as a book. It looked at leadership from a contingency and from an evidence based perspective.

    Since I am a consultant, if I ever get a tattoo on my arm, the tattoo will read, "It Depends……"

    Good luck with your quest, Catarina.

    –Larry Stybel

  16. I don't think there is an overall right or wrong answer to this question. I think that it depends on the situation. Some situations may call for an emphatic leader, some for a tough leader, while other situations will require a mix of both. There is a place for every leadership style and it is important to know when your leadership style will shine and what your weaknesses are as a leader so that you can improve upon them.

  17. I dont see how a leader can be effective without having an empathy with followers.
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  18. They should be somewhere in the middle. He can't act like a robot but he should maintain a distance also because he will have issues with the productivity.
    My ideal boss is the one who can keep and maintain a good atmosphere at the working place.
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  19. There is a fine line between empathy and sympathy, and too frequently I think leaders, especially front line leaders become overly sympathetic. You are correct though, the balanced empathetic leader is a model for successful leadership.

    Very thought provoking post, Catarina!

    Thank you for sharing!

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  20. As with most things in life, I think that a balance of each makes the best leader. You need both to be effective. Your employees will not respect you if you are not empathetic and will resent you. On the other hand, they also will not respect a leader who is not able to make the hard decisions. If you have respect and can communicate your decisions effectively, then that would seem to me to be the best balance.
    The Nordic countries have been on to a good thing and should not step backward, when the rest of the world are now catching up. It's in the balance, not overly empathetic and not to hard lined.

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  21. I've worked for both types. Then I meet and worked for a man who was both. He was amazing. I learned so much from him. He was a mentor, boss and freind. The organization sored. We became the company everyone wanted to work for. Then the leadership changed direction and he was moved to another unite. We lost that special something and two years later the company was half what it was. If it can be found or taught it can make a huge difference. 🙂
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  22. I think you have to have the right combination of both empathy & toughness. A leader without empathy can come across as uncaring.
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  23. Having been a leader myself in various capacities, I must say that empathy is a key criteria to successful leadership. In my opinion, the poorest leaders I have seen are those with such big egos that they are not receptive to the needs and concerns of those they have been elected to serve.
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  24. I agree with you, extremes are not useful. Empathy to the point of being unable to make difficult decisions is useless. Tough to the point that you can't understand what motivates is also pretty pointless. What Scandinavian businesses and those in the U.S. seem to be reacting to is the extreme end of both strengths. Balance and using the strengths you need when you need them is what makes for an effective leader. If leadership was as easy as choosing, this or that instead of a complex blend of different skills, we'd all be leaders. 🙂

  25. neither or… why does it have to be black and white?
    A good leader is one who can fight when needed and be compassionate at the same time. THIS comes (my opionion) with age and experience. So MAYBE MAYBE we should ask ourselves – should we hire YOUNG managers or OLDER?
    Should we strive to have experienced and perhaps more cautious managers or younger, more daredevil managers? OR SHOULD WE STRIVE FOR A MIX?

  26. Army – tough leaders, zero empathy. Church – compassionate leaders, zero toughness. Business – always in between, so leaders need both. How much empathy? 50/50? Depends on organizational business model, strategy and culture/values.

  27. Catarina — It's a difficult balance to achieve. Unfortunately, in the world we live in any hint of vulnerability (read empathetic) in a leader is viewed as a weakness. President Obama, for example, only established his leadership and authority with the sneak attack and murder of Osama bin Laden. Then he was considered "tough" enough for the job.
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  28. Great article. I think the leadership role should differ based on the type of individuals that leader is leading and the environment and accomplishments that leader is trying to achieve. In some areas, it is necessary to be compassionate and sympathetic but there needs to be times to put your foot down before the individuals underneath you are beginning to walk over you.
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  29. Hi Catarina This is a very interesting topic. Leadership is connected with values and in every country perception and culture are not the same. This is the reason why empathy and compassion may be seen differently in different countries. Not every human being located on the earth sees or feels the same way. Yes they all need structures and this is what leaders bring to communities. Visionary Leaders know how to blend the power of structures and words to integrate them with the values of their communities to generate wealth and improve life of people. At the end of the day people support a leader because they trust the changes they will bring through their platform and offer.

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  30. Striking a balance between compassion and toughness is indeed difficult. I knew one school administrator who broke his school into the "blue" and "green" team. Teachers with a certain style and temperament were then paired with students who would best respond to their teaching style, plus it allowed the principal to remain more responsive to everybody's needs. It's safe to say such a flexible, understanding, and all inclusive leadership style marks that as on of the best functioning schools I've ever seen.
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  31. Being extreme only gives you a bad label. Empathy is needed in the US as people here do not think you care unless you are. One needs to balance which strengths is necessary to be that effective leader. If leadership was as easy as choosing, this or that instead of a complex blend of different skills, we'd all be leaders.
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  32. I believe that a leader has the talent of being both empathy and firmness. A lot of times that is hard for the individual. Being a friend to the other person can lead a person to be too empathetic and not caring enough will lead people to fear them. It is a delicate balance.
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  33. Catarina, seems like it is really about knowing boundaries. It is a good idea for a leader to understand the feelings of one's employees or staff. Whether you act upon that knowledge is something else. Many leaders, at least in the U.S., became leaders because they were good at the task at hand. Understanding the staff and how they operate is important to know. But like with children, you don't say yes just because you understand why someone is asking for something. Interesting that Scandinavian countries have problems with too much empathy.
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  34. This is a capital issue to understand the leadership concept. There isn’t leader without empathy. And anyone politics system do persist without the resource to the firmness or toughness (but “without losting tenderness”).
    Whole is on the dependence of the historical circumstances.
    In a way, empathy favors all the leaders; future will require increasingly empathy of your leaders; several kinds of leaders and societies generates a “mix of different kinds of leadership styles”; the debate about the ideal of leader is in the beginning (see Sun Tzu); empathy as a whole is linked to the leaders’s life experience; etc.

  35. True leader may be considerate in operational decisions but must be firm in strategic ones

  36. I agree that leaders should be firm but in the time leader should have the capability that depending in the situation when to be empathetic.

  37. Catarina, I think all leaders should ask your question ” empathy combined with an ability to take tough decisions when necessary is ideal?” This seems pretty simple but I know it isn’t. World leaders, Corporate CEO’s have to show empathy but at the same time need to stay on their side of the invisible line. It is only when that line is crossed and they are seen as just ‘one of the guys/gals’ that I think empathy becomes a problem.
    I’ve seen that in my own position as Executive Director of a charity in dealing with staff. I always tried to accommodate their personal needs when possible. However, with some you couldn’t become then the ‘personal problems’ never seemed to stop. Again, tough calls but a necessary ones.

  38. I think it would be a mistake to confuse empathy with weakness. I don't believe there has to be an either/or scenario…balance is always what is needed and should be what leaders strive to attain. As to Nordic countries now questioning if they've tipped the scale…well, isn't that a clue in itself?

  39. It's so coincidental Catarina we were watching the history channel last night on television. (Yes, that is the kind of tv we watch! hahaha) Anyway it was about General Meade in our Civil War; a brutal war I have to add. Anyway, it turns out that he was a consensus kind of guy being new on the leadership front when he was assigned this role. In planning how to fight the repeated assaults by General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces, he asked his top soldiers to vote on it. Imagine that today in the USA! Would never get to a vote. But I digress.

    He was criticized for being a weak leader, wanting to listen to his top soldiers. Turned out to be a brilliant move because that's what caused all the benefits of the Union winning! A "united" states and the end of slavery.

    So then empathy? By listening to his troops he understood MORE and better rather than getting stuck with his own agenda, his own thinking and in this example, his own tactics. Your last question you asked us gives us the answer: it’s time to accept that leaders are different and empathy works for some and not for others – in certain situations. Always insightful!
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  40. I think it’s all about balance. Leaders need to be accessible and to listen but they are still the ones to make the decisions after considering the options. Firmness coupled with empathy without weakness is ideal. That’s the mix I decided worked well for me when I was running my flight school where safety is critical but it needs to be fun too.

  41. A leader must be both firm and empathetic. There must be a balance and a clear understanding of when to operate in each.

  42. Leaders that are both Empathetic and firm can be great leaders and mentors. They can have s huge impact on a company, a team or even on one persons career, as my mentor did for me. I learned a lot from him as my mentor, my boss, but also my friend. It is a delicate balance that not all are able to achieve, but is a very valuable skill.

  43. I remember conversations like this arose when I was in the military. It was divulged to me that officers (or employers) are leaders, and that our role is to mold people. It was also said that leaders are the head of the household, and those below them are children. This was not a derogatory remark about those below you, but to convey that those below you are looking for guidance.
    I think having empathy is important, and you need it. But then there are times you must be firm, especially when you have to disciplining someone. So maybe it is correct, leaders, employers might be like parents.

  44. I personally believe that a leader should be both. Being empathic is a desirable trait to have, and should be developed by anyone holding any form of leadership. But at the same time, a leader must know when to draw the line and to put his or her foot down and be firm on any decision made.

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