Empathy And Leadership

When we speak of leadership it is usually in reference to a supervisory or management position. A professional setting of some sort. But leadership is also a factor in one’s personal life. In that role, it is pretty easy to be empathetic. When you child’s team loses out in the playoffs or he/she has a disappointing grade after studying so hard. No one thinks the worse of us when we are empathetic in those situations.

But, what about on the job? There are many times when a leader must deal with unpleasant situations. Sooner or later a leader will have to handle a disciplinary situation, a layoff, or a termination. If you show empathy in those matters will people view you as a wimp or weak? I’m not talking about breaking down and crying, but just showing some compassion for the cards you are dealing out.

I have long argued that any leader that handles terminations should have unexpectedly lost his/her job at some point. Nothing instills empathy more than having been in that situation yourself. You understand the economic setback, the blow to one’s self-esteem, the embarrassment, and the fear.

Even when the termination is fully justified and all chances have been given for the employee to do better the matter can be handled with some compassion.

I’ve terminated many people, not something I brag about because in every case it was a failing of mine or the company that I represented. We hired the wrong person, they didn’t get enough training and support, they weren’t given the right tools, or maybe the company was just going through rough times due to no fault of the employee.

Doing those nasty jobs are what they pay you for. It has to be done. But, it can be done with empathy, compassion, and an understanding of what the other person is facing and feeling. That is not a show of weakness, it is a show of character.


Ken Vincent
Ken Vincent
KEN is a 46 year veteran hotelier and entrepreneur. Formerly owned two hotels, an advertising agency, a wholesale tour company, a POS company, a leasing company, and a hotel management company. The hotels included chain owned, franchises, and independents. They ranged in type from small luxury inns, to limited service properties, to large convention hotels and resorts. After retiring he authored a book, “So Many Hotels, So Little Time” in which he relates what life is like behind the scenes for a hotel manager. Ken operated more that 100 hotels and resorts in the US and Caribbean and formed eight companies. He is a firm believer that senior management should share their knowledge and experience with the next generation of management.

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  1. A Director where I worked talked to me one time about this exact thing. I wasn’t in danger of being let go, but I was newly hired. He said I needed to raise the flag if I had questions or needed more training or better explanations. He said he hoped I would thrive in my job there and if I didn’t it was on the management team. Today they are called the leadership team, but you know. Terms change and back then they managed. Today they lead.

  2. I like what you said when you terminated people. Only two times in twenty years did I terminate someone because they were the wrong person. These people out right lied about their credentials, their skills, and what they were good at. Termination was expected. But with every other time, it was not the failing of the terminated employee, but of other employees and supporting management. Policies and procedures we can easily change, but when it’s an other employee that is strongly protected with business politics; it results in the wrong person being terminated. This other employee can be transitioning quickly up the ranks; or be someone that is cut from the same cloth as those in senior management; or someone well practiced in convert intimation, aggression, and bullying.

    Despite the cause of termination, I’ve seen too many state “poor quality of work” as being the make factor. When I probed deeper, quality was never the issue.

      • Totally agree. In my consulting practice, we measure the processes that support human capital. We have measures (and analytics) that can isolate the impacts of bullying, politics, and cultural elements on productivity, quality of work, and revenue growth.

        One time we pulled together a simulation on how a “person of interest” went from meeting to meeting and thorough animations show how his performance impacted the organization as a whole.

        With the right data and the right people we have unprecedented transparency to know who’s the right people to terminate.