Empathetic Leadership as an Intrinsic Attribute for all Leaders

The search for empathy among (not only) South Africa’s leaders

The South African Constitution’s preamble states that it is to “lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people, and in which every citizen is equally protected by law.”

empathetic leadership

What does this mean for South Africans? What is the will of the people when it comes to the qualities we want to see in a leader? And is this true for the citizens in other countries as well?

I can make the point that our leaders have become tone-deaf. In South Africa, we are plagued by load shedding, an almost daily occurrence where the provision of electricity to households and businesses is completely disrupted for at least two hours at a time, sometimes three times a day.

A few weeks ago, I was asked to sign a petition that was set up by a doctor, pleading with Eskom (a State Owned Enterprise and our national power provider) to not interrupt the electricity supply to hospitals, as it was causing a disruption in the delivery of critical medical care that could lead to the death of some patients.

The horror I felt when I learned that, while our president and ministers never see an interruption in electricity to their houses and offices – electricity that the taxpayer pays for – even our hospitals had to go without, was indescribable. I signed the petition and later found out that Eskom won’t cut the power to ‘certain’ hospitals. A feeling of helplessness replaced the anger. This helplessness stemmed from a feeling that they merely changed it to placate the masses for a while, that they did not really hear us or feel what we felt. There simply was no empathy there.

Back to the Constitution. So what is the ‘will of the people?’

In March 2020, when the first Covid-19 cases appeared in South Africa, President Ramaphosa went on television in what would later become known as ‘family meetings.’ He was pleading for cooperation and understanding and although he lay down some very strict rules concerning lockdowns and the wearing of masks, etc, we felt united as a nation against this common threat. We felt sympathy for the man who was in it with us and we gave our cooperation to fight this disease. It was clear that the will of the people was for him to understand what we were going through and the moment we had that perception, everyone was on board.

With the blackouts, we do not feel the same. We rile against it not only because we feel an upset in our daily routine and the way we live our lives – the Covid regulations upended our lives in a much bigger way after all. We rile against it because it not only steals our livelihoods and destroys our economy bit by bit, but mostly because we feel unheard. We feel that government and the people in power simply don’t care. And in a country where economic transformation seems more like a pipedream than a goal we are working towards, leadership can ill afford to be this tone-deaf and lack any real empathy for its citizens.

So what is the difference? What did we feel in 2020 that we are not feeling now?

The Difference was Empathetic Leadership

It does not matter how you sugarcoat it, South Africans feel slighted by a government that only looks after itself. In 2020 we felt like we were all in this fight together. Even when we chuckled about the president pulling the mask over his eyes and battling to pull it down like a 10-year-old trying on her first piece of supportive underwear, it was with a feeling of ‘he is all of us.’

That feeling has changed.

Whether the State Capture Report by Thuli Madonsela or the report by the Zondo Commission contributed to it, South Africans feel further removed from their government than ever before. There is a lack of trust and understanding on both sides and when the lights go out and MPs are sitting in luxurious, well-lit rooms paid for by each South African, the gaping hole left where empathy should have been, stares at us from every corner.

What would a truly empathetic leader have done?

Every household and every business in South Africa bears the brunt of living and working with regular disruptions in electricity, sometimes at only a few minutes notice. Of course, there are a few that were able to afford solar power or can run a generator even when fuel prices are at an all-time high. But most of us try to cook on single gas plates and hope our batteries last long enough that we do not have to cut meetings short. We pray that business owners do not have to throw in the towel and have to lay off more workers because they cannot run their businesses with produce going off and cash registers not working during load shedding.

This may sound crazy and one might ask what difference it would make. But how much favor would a leader carry with the people they are supposed to serve if they said “no, I am going to go through this with my people.” If even one minister, premier or MP stood up and said, “even though I have the right to have my electricity running 24/7, I am going to take it on the chin and have my street go through load shedding in exactly the same way ordinary citizens are,” it would have made an enormous difference in the way we feel about our severely unempathetic, tone-deaf leaders.

South African leaders are not the only ones lacking empathy

When we are going through hardship and struggle, we tend to think that our leaders are the only ones who lack empathetic leadership skills. But a few clicks brings us to pictures of Sri Lankans storming and overtaking the palatial residences of both the prime minister and president, forcing both to resign and then rejoicing both inside and outside these residences. These are pictures of people who had enough of leaders lacking empathy for their people’s dire economic circumstances.

Boris Johnson first lied to parliament and the people after he held a party with no social distancing and no masks, around the same time that the late Queen Elizabeth II had to bury her husband with strict Covid regulations in place. She was seen as the empathetic leader who had foregone the closeness of family and even the nation’s expressions of sympathy (as was seen after her own death) when she lost her husband, while her ministers were seen as the hounds that did not stick to the rules they demanded others live by. We all know how that turned out for Mr. Johnson.

Empathetic Leadership in the Workplace

Empathetic leadership in the workplace should start with the board, run through the executive and senior management, and right down to the lowest-ranking employee in the company. Empathetic leaders at all levels are more approachable, they involve their teams in conversations and listen, they adapt to circumstances and others’ points of view, they validate the feelings and opinions of others on their team, they motivate and empower their team while making them feel taken care of and probably most of all, they are not too proud to admit and make retribution when they made a mistake.

In a world where everyone is struggling with something, it is more important than ever that leaders practice empathy at every level. As you read here, you might recognise yourself as a truly empathetic leader. In that case, why not take your leadership one step further by looking into serving at board level? The world needs empathetic leadership to drive a healthy agenda for the good of all. It is only if we feel heard and understood by our leaders, that we will welcome the changes that need to be made.

I am a qualified coach and have worked in the board search sector since 2013. In 2021 I took my experience in branding and marketing and combined that with my board search experience to create coaching products that help anyone who wants to become a board member. Connect with me on any of my social media accounts.