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 comments to Should leaders be empathetic or firm?

  • Adele Yuboco  says:

    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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