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  • Tamar Balkin

What Is The Most Critical Leadership Skill For 2020?

Updated: Oct 12, 2022

Photo by Sid Verma on Unsplash

The road of life is rocky
And you may stumble too.
So while you talk about me
Someone else is judging you

Judge Not by Bob Marley 

(Click here for the  song). 

This week I had the pleasure of a few face to face coffees with some HR managers and senior business leaders.  After discussing how they and their organisations have been impacted by COVID,  I was asked “ Is there one skill that would best equip leaders for the uncertainty and complexity that lies ahead?”

Richard MacKinnon in his podcast this week helped me to formulate an answer.  He cautioned that today's leaders need to be careful to not use their experience as the yardstick for how their team has and will adapt to current state of work. In fact without exceptional empathy skills,  leaders cannot be mindful  of the individual differences in their team  psychological and contextual adaptation to the current levels of uncertainty and complexity in both life and work.

"I am seeing a lack of empathy between very senior people and the rest of the organisation"

 Richard MacKinnon

So what is empathy?

Empathy  is commonly described as the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes, almost a type of “vicarious introspection”. What makes empathy complicated is we need to discover how the other person feels on their shoes, not how we would feel in their shoes. In my opinion the critical and most challenging component of empathy, is suspending judgment and listening with curiosity. Suspending judgement requires you to ignore your biases, pressures and assumptions about both the person and the situation so that you can fully listen to understand.

"To be with another in this [empathic] way means that for the time being, you lay aside your own views and values in order to enter another’s world without prejudice."

Carl Rodgers.


So how do we develop empathy?

1. Start with your own mindset:

Apply the principles of unconditional positive regard.

Go into the conversation with the mindset that typically  people’s behaviour has pure motives.  “Give them the benefit of the doubt” until you have all the information from their perspective. Having this open-minded attitude will encourage them to freely share their thoughts, feelings, without fear  that you will be shocked, offended, or judgmental.

Do not assume that suspending judgement means you approve of what a person has done. As Lombardo, and Eichinger eloquently explain“understanding does not mean agreement”.

2. Really listen:

Make time and private space for the conversation.

The best way to listen well is to simply concentrate on what the other person is saying.  I am aware this is easier said than done and Celeste Headlee's ted talk has some excellent practical tips.

Many researchers have found that when listening our brains have a lot of idle time to drift and not concentrate. To reduce the likelihood that you will jump to conclusions before the other person has finished talking try the following:

  • Write down what they are saying

  • Write down your random thoughts and hypotheses

  • Integrate the information that is being presented.

3. Get comfortable with big emotions:

Typically, managers need to draw on their empathy skills in the context of negative or difficult conversations. Most people do not feel comfortable experiencing difficult emotions or being in presence of someone who is. As a result, we often avoid these conversations entirely or we don’t listen well. The emotional regulation techniques from my previous blog will help you  to understand not experience the emotions of others.

Why is empathy such an important leadership skill?  

"Empathy has been advanced as a critical predictor of prosocial behaviour and effectiveness in the workplace"

Clark et al

Based on a comprehensive review of the empathy literature, Clark and his colleagues concluded that the emotional state of the leader is a significant factor in creating a positive organisational climate. Particularly when “The corporate world .. is full of challenges and competition, and most organizations are facing a lot of threats and hurdles.” He explained that if an employee perceives that an employer is not investing in the relationship, they may feel a reduced sense of commitment, trust and loyalty, and begin to work just for the financial reward. Fortunately, the converse also applies and following behaviours occur when employees feel that their boss has true empathy:  

  • strong in-role performance,

  • increased innovation,

  • high organisational citizenship,  

  • increased commitment, trust, and job satisfaction,

  • reduced turnover, and diminished intention to quit, and

  • improved loyalty.

As a leader empathy enables you to: 

  • envisage the impact of your decisions and actions on core audiences and plan accordingly, 

  • inspire your team,

  • develop new leaders, and

  • identify client desires and the risks they are or aren’t willing to take.

I challenge you to practice your empathetic mindset at home and notice the positive impact. As aptly expressed by Roger Ebert  “I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.”



Clark, M.A., Robertson, M.M. and Young, S. (2019). “I feel your pain”: A critical review of organizational research on empathy. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 40(2), pp.166–192.

Ekman, P. and Friesen, W.V. (1969). Nonverbal Leakage and Clues to Deception†. Psychiatry, 32(1), pp.88–106.

Kultalahti, S. and Viitala, R. (2015). Generation Y – challenging clients for HRM? Journal of Managerial Psychology, 30(1), pp.101–114.

Lombardo, M.M. and Eichinger, R.W. (2006). FYI: for your improvement: a guide for development and coaching. Minneapolis, Mn: Lominger Ltd.

Maamari, B.E. and Majdalani, J.F. (2017). Emotional intelligence, leadership style and organizational climate. International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 25(2), pp.327–345.


Robbins, S.P. (1994). Organisational behaviour: concepts, controversies and applications: Australia and New Zealand. New York ; Sydney: Prentice Hall Australia.

‌Schooler, Jonathan. (2015). Bridging the Objective/Subjective Divide Towards a Meta-Perspective of Science and Experience. In T. Metzinger & J. M. Windt (Eds). Open MIND: 34(T). Frankfurt am Main: MIND Group. 10.15502/9783958570405

Tartakovsky, M. and read, M.S.A.E.L. updated: 8 J. 2018 ~ 4 min (2017). When You’re Scared of Feeling Your Feelings. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 Jul. 2020].

Positive (2019). What is Unconditional Positive Regard in Psychology? [online] Available at:

Psychology Today. (n.d.). Unconditional Positive Regard. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 Jul. 2020].

My pocket Pysch Ep 065: Employee wellbeing with Dr. Kevin Teoh

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