“Hard” Empathy

Some people are convinced that to be a great leader, one must be appreciated by everyone. It is not so. People don’t look for friends when they refer to a boss. They are looking for direction, support, honesty, and clarity, in the word ‘leadership’. And while they may not know at first, they may be looking for a dose of “hard empathy”!

True leaders identify with the people they lead, they know what the daily tasks and challenges their employees face are. They know the inevitable ‘peaks and valleys. The best leaders come from hard, operational work and know what it means to close a bad quarter, see their offers rejected, and know that the customer is not receiving or taking their call. They feel the bruises of defeat on their skin.

So empathy towards people is important, but sometimes the empathy that a leader must have is of the ‘hard’ type.

Hard empathy means giving one’s team what it needs, not what it wants. Sometimes it means telling people things they don’t want to hear or defining work practices and goals that they may initially disagree with. But this is fine: ‘hard empathy’ works because it indicates what is needed at a given moment, not what is most appreciated. ‘Hard empathy’ identifies a balance between respect for the individual and the corporate imperative to achieve the goal (which will then benefit everyone).

Hard empathy could mean sitting with a salesperson who is failing, setting up a training or retraining plan, managing activities closely, imposing better time management, setting daily goals, providing intense coaching. This is sometimes heavy on the team and very often not even fun for the leader. Yes, it’s hard, but a leader must do it because he/she cares about the team’s success and the future of individuals. And, if they are capable people, they will understand.


Aldo Delli Paoli
Aldo Delli Paoli
Aldo is a lawyer and teacher of law & Economic Sciences, "lent" to the finance world. He has worked, in fact, 35 years long for a multinational company of financial service in the auto sector, where he held various roles, until that of CEO. In the corporate field, he has acquired skills and held positions as Credit Manager, Human Resource Manager, Team leader for projects of Acquisition & Merger, branch opening, company restructuring, outplacement, legal compliance, analysis and innovation of organizational processes, business partnerships, relations with Trade Unions and Financial Control Institutions. After leaving the company, he continued as an external member of the Board of Directors e, at the same time, he has gone back practicing law and was a management consultant for various companies. He has been also a columnist for newspapers specializing in labor law, automotive services and work organization. His interests include human behavior in the organizational environment, to the neuroscience, the impact of new technologies, the fate of the planet and people facing poverty or war scenarios. He loves traveling, reading, is passionate about many sports, follows the NBA and practices tennis.

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  1. Aldo, your articles always have a ring of truth. Any leader that desires to be popular, and follows that desire into consistent action is doomed to disappointment if not to total failure. Leaders are paid to make the tough decisions, not to be popular. It is akin to “tough love”.

    • Ken, I am very pleased to hear from you and I hope everything goes well.
      I thank you for the support and above all for the comment, always shrewd.
      Until next time.

  2. Thanks Ali,
    I am grateful for your comments not only for the encouragement but also because they allow me to deepen the subject.
    There are limits to the empathic approach to leadership in the executive sphere. While being crucial for executive leadership, too much empathy can in fact generate an overload of responsibility, particularly if it is not balanced by other components of emotional intelligence. Only if accompanied by self-control, sociability and self-awareness can empathy be a decisive factor in the quality of choices and in the systemic effectiveness of decisions.

  3. Reading your post, Aldo is sheer pleasure. Your words reflect that you are very passionate of this postas I am.

    I loved reading these lines:
    They feel the bruises of defeat on their skin.
    Hard empathy means giving one’s team what it needs, not what it wants. Sometimes it means telling people things they don’t want to hear or defining work practices and goals that they may initially disagree with.

    I could not agree more because if I do I shall be contradicting myself. I wrote a post that empathy alone is not enough unless it turns to an action of generosity. You call it hard empathy though it is soft on my heart.

    Brilliant post by all standards.