EMBA: “E” for Executive. “E” for Empathy.

by mba

The one trait every leader should have for a better future

When leaders reach the highest steps of the career ladder, is there anything left to accomplish? Executive MBA students believe there is. Hard skills, a tech-savvy mindset and adaptability are all essential for success at the top levels of organisations, but there is something else leaders should strive for and it cannot be measured with data and reports. It’s leading with empathy.

“To be empathic is to try and put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to understand how people think, what drives people,” Evelyna Christina Wever- Croes, the prime minister of Aruba, said at the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit. “Empathy is the single most important quality that we need in all our leaders.”

How does empathic leadership trickle down to an organisation’s success? And what is the role of the Executive MBA in developing this trait among top-level professionals?

The road to empathic leadership

While empathy has always been a distinguished leadership trait, it started getting more attention in the past decade. And following the Covid-19 pandemic, it became one of the main topics of conversation when talking about communities, collaboration and leadership. For many people, it was precisely this human capability to show understanding, compassion and patience that helped them maintain their hope for the future.

At the start of the outbreak, Ken Stolman, then Senior Sales Executive at Salesforce and alumnus of the New York University Stern School of Business (US), helped in scaling a non-profit organisation that assisted seniors and other people at risk by pairing them with healthy volunteers who could meet their needs. But to him, empathy was not just about doing a good deed for the community.

Ken says he was inspired by the senior executives at his company who lead by example and opened up about their personal challenges in this new reality. “In speaking to my clients, I do my best to reveal stories about myself and my family so they view me as a whole person, rather than just their sales lead (and a representative of Salesforce),” Ken says and adds that leading with empathy also means acknowledging that self-care and family come first.

In times of crisis, leading by example and with emotional intelligence can make all the difference for people as they decide whether to trust and follow your leadership. As a devastating war raged in Ukraine, president Volodymyr Zelenskyy was able to demonstrate qualities that analysts say were even more important than bravery and strength. According to Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania (US) professor and speaker Adam Grant, it is the Ukrainian president’s ability to understand and reflect the values and identity of the people he leads that earned him their trust.

“Psychologists find that we’re drawn to leaders who represent our group. The people we elevate into positions of authority aren’t typical members of our group – they’re prototypical members […]. They’re the people we see as exemplifying the ideals of the group and acting in the best interests of the group,” Adam Grant explains.

Innovation boost

EMBA: “E” for Executive. “E” for Empathy.Beyond enhancing leadership itself, empathy and compassion can have a much bigger positive impact than you might have thought. Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business (US), calls empathy “the undervalued stock of innovation”. He believes that empathy plays a huge role for the development of innovative ideas in organisations.

“New ideas involve risk and potential failure. There’s also the fear of putting a new idea out there that others might judge harshly. But making new ideas stick also requires collaboration. So without some empathy, which means taking stock of other people on the team and their unique perspectives, your idea is a lot less likely to yield anything meaningful,” Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks notes.

He says this realisation came to him as a result of his studies on why people who have similar business interests sometimes have problems collaborating. It turned out that our “culture of professionalism has taught us to practically shut off our emotional radar when we come to work”. According to Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, this was an important discovery because it shows we don’t always need to equip people with new capabilities, but rather help them use the skills they already have and frequently use outside the workplace.

Can you teach empathy?

Just like communication, problem solving or agility, empathy has become an essential trait for today’s workplace. Top international business schools have already taken note. Institutions like the French INSEAD and London Business School (LBS) (UK) have courses on relationship building and self-awareness. At LBS, Executive MBA students can choose the elective in “Interpersonal Dynamics” to practise mindfulness and learn to handle difficult conversations at work.

Joanna Richardson, LBS EMBA alumna, Class of 2019, agrees that the focus of this elective has been transformative for her and other students. “The functional skills that the MBA teaches you need to go hand in hand with an ongoing self-awareness journey that will help you set clear, realistic goals and set boundaries to protect the things that matter most – something that becomes increasingly important as you progress along the leadership journey throughout your career,” Joanna adds in an LBS blogpost.

The roaring success of such executive courses proves that emotional intelligence and compassion can indeed be taught and learnt. The EMBA format paves the way for the corporate world to nurture and develop these traits, starting from their leaders and continuing with each employee. According to Stanford University psychology professor Jamil Zaki, the first step towards building an empathic company culture is acknowledging that it can be built.

From there on, there are different ways recommended by experts to strengthen empathy in the organisation and lead by example. Listen actively and really focus on the intended meaning and feelings of the person. Highlight acts of empathy (through incentives and recognition) to allow employees to see its prevalence, turning up the volume on a positive norm. Identify fellow connected leaders and get them on your side to help champion the cause.

Enter the EMBA classroom

The idea of nurturing social and emotional skills – empathy, emotional intelligence, or self-awareness – is gaining traction in business education. And it’s happening not only in Europe and the US. The Financial Times recently reported that Monash University in Australia has signed a deal with a consultancy firm “to support students and executive education that aims to reduce stress, anxiety and burnout and improve well-being in the workplace.”

“Young managers are more able to deal with difficult situations and take care of their own and their team’s health when they develop leadership capabilities such as empathy, emotional intelligence, opportunities for coaching and connection to societal mores in parallel with conventional business skills,” Professor Patrick Butler, Director of the Global Executive MBA at Monash, tells the Financial Times.

Business schools take care of what they teach, but also of how they are teaching it. When it comes to emotional intelligence, Sir Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Alliance Manchester Business School (UK), believes learning has to be experiential rather than cognitive. Rather than lectures, students need to take part in team projects, with feedback from trained observers “telling them how they behave and the impact they have on them”.

At the end of the day, the choice to study in an Executive MBA is not just about your own growth. Leaders create leaders and empathy is the way to pass it on.

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