Why Empathy is an Important Leadership Trait

I believe, if we were to compare our industry with many (if not most) others, we’d find empathy to be an uncommonly consistent trait amongst Credit Union leaders.  The principle our entire movement is founded on – people helping people– infuses the very structure of our industry with a heavy dose of empathy. I also believe that this serves us well.

Broadly speaking, it seems that the importance of empathy is underemphasized in leadership development. Successful leaders are often portrayed as headstrong authoritarians, singularly focused and unbending. This idea of leadership sometimes gets confused with determination and courage – valuable leadership traits that requireenough empathy to be able to assess a situation from multiple perspectives and act in the best interest of others even when it’s risky or uncomfortable. In contrast, leaders who lack empathydemonstrate apathytowards how one’s actions and decisions are affecting others. This is a weak way to lead. Great leaders focus on building a culture of trust, an impossible thing to do when you don’t actually care about the people you want to trust you.

If you are a high-energy Type A personality, whose personal experience that anything can be achieved with enough ambition and drive, it’s tempting to look around at those struggling to find success and think, “What’s the problem? Just try harder. That’s what I did!”

Will Smith said it well in his treadmill analogy: “The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked, period.”

There’s nothing wrong with this mentality.

In fact, we probably need more people who aren’t afraid to work as hard as it takes and never give up. But, when tasked with leading others, this can become a challenging area that needs to be kept in check with, you guessed it, a heavy dose of empathy.

For someone who lacks empathy, there is a tendency to look at everyone else and say, “This is the way I did it and it worked for me. If it’s not working for you, there’s something wrong with you.”Without empathy, leaders can feel that their goal is to get their people to fall in line and follow the path that they, in all their wisdom, lay out for them.

But this is not the job of leaders.Great leaders enable others to be successful by removing barriers and supporting them. They act more in the role of a coach than a manager. The job of leaders is not to dictate as much as it is to inspire. It’s not to clear the path, make the map, and act as tour guide. It’s to give people the tools they need to create the path and navigate it as a team. The role of leaders to help people set goals that they are inspired to go after, not to tell them what their goals are and expect them to run after them blindly.

Without empathy, it’s too easy to tear people down, make them feel small and discouraged and not valuable. In this kind of culture, people have a tendency to isolate themselves, work in silos, and take few risks. In other words, without empathy, the idea of people helping peopleis impossible.

Empathy fosters community, collaboration, and cooperation – foundational elements on which the Credit Union Movement is built. Most of us want to feel a deep sense of belonging. We want to know that our work has purpose and that we are valued. Ask most anyone who has devoted their career to Credit Unions why they choose the industry, and these themes are sure to emerge.

Empathy is a part of our DNA. And that is something we should be proud of.

About Dan Finerty

Dan Finerty is the Director of Marketing at the Mountain West Credit Union Association, a Credit Union champion, a Credit Union Development Educator (CUDE), and an award-winning marketer. Dan has over 14 years of marketing experience in communications, retail, packaged goods, and, of course, Credit Unions. He believes that Credit Unions have an incredible story to tell and works with some of the brightest Credit Union professionals to help promote Credit Unions to the public. Dan holds two Bachelor’s of Science in Marketing and in Management. He is also a swell guy.

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