Being a Better Leader Often Starts with Being a Better Person

By Harry Luk, Consultant at Peagram Consulting

“What makes a great leader?” If I asked you this question, what would be your answer? Is it vision, power, integrity, courage, or humility? What about empathy? Yes, an empathetic leader. Did it ever cross your mind? It certainly did not cross my mind when I was asked the question.

In a 3-year longitudinal study surveying business students about what they thought were the most important qualities of being an effective leader, empathy was consistently ranked as the least important leadership quality among nine other qualities like intelligence and charisma. However, it makes perfect sense that having empathy would make a great leader. An empathetic person cares about and cares for others, and that’s how leaders should be, looking out for their followers. I don’t know about you, but I’d hope my leader takes care of me.

Empathy has gained much more attention from businesses because studies have shown that empathetic leaders actually make great leaders. A group of researchers conducted a study to find out the relationships between leaders’ empathy level and their job performance. They found those leaders rated by subordinates as more empathetic, also had better job performance ratings from the leaders’ boss.

So what does it really mean to be empathetic? Empathy is the ability to experience and relate to other people’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Not to be confused with sympathy, which is the ability to understand and support others with compassion. And more importantly, showing empathy does not equate to having empathy, having empathy is what matters.

Although not all of us were born with the same amount of empathy, and of course our life experiences have a huge influence on how empathetic we are. Someone who grew up in a loving family will likely to be more empathetic than someone who had cold and distant parents. With that being said, luckily for all of us, empathy can be learned. You can start with implementing the simple tips down below to develop empathy and start becoming a great leader.

Tips to build empathy:

1. Listen

Just listen. Hold back your opinions, your advice, listen carefully, listen attentively, listen to what’s said, and listen to what’s not said. Listening gives you the opportunity to learn information about the other person, so you get to know them better and understand them better. Not sharing your opinion gives the other person more room to share, it will also make them feel being listened to.

2. Walk in Others’ Shoes

Being empathetic requires you to understand other people’s perspectives, so you can experience and relate to their experiences and emotions. The first step of taking perspectives is to be aware of your own perspectives or biases or judgments; it is very unlikely that you will understand why other people do things a certain way if you keep judging not walking in their shoes. The next time when you catch yourself judging or making certain assumptions, pause, and think about other possibilities.  

3. Be Open and Vulnerable

Face your own insecurities, be willing to be vulnerable so you can accept yourself for being who you are and feel more comfortable in your own skin. This also gives you the ability to accept others unconditionally. Being vulnerable doesn’t mean that you need to tell everyone your worst nightmares. Rather, it could be as simple as acknowledging the fact that we all could make mistakes at some point, and admit it when it happens as opposed to blaming someone or something else. Sometimes being vulnerable could mean sharing things that make you feel uncomfortable so that you can open yourself up to others.

Empathetic leaders are indeed great leaders. Develop your ability to be empathetic, and you will become a great leader yourself, and remember, an empathetic leader still have and shows empathy even when he/she is not a leader. What will you choose to do differently today?

Thanks for reading my work. References are below and please contact me for resources or feedback.


Harry Luk, M.A. Business Psychology and an Avid Researcher

Consultant, Peagram Consulting


Gentry, W. A., Weber, T. J., & Sadri, G. (2007, April). Empathy in the workplace: A tool for effective leadership. In Annual Conference of the Society of Industrial Organizational Psychology, New York, NY, April.

Holt, S., & Marques, J. (2012). Empathy in leadership: Appropriate or misplaced? An empirical study on a topic that is asking for attention. Journal of business ethics105(1), 95-105.


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