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Empathy in Leadership: A Critical Tool for Today's Business World



If Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, has found empathy to be a cornerstone of effective leadership, doesn’t this suggest it’s an essential quality for all professionals to adopt?

Nadella has attributed his understanding of empathy to a personal journey that began decades ago when his son, Zain, was born with cerebral palsy (he died in 2022 at age 25, after spending significant portions of his life in a Seattle hospital). Seeing medical equipment running on Microsoft computers at the hospital also gave Nadella a deeper understanding of the significance of the company's contribution to societal transformation, according to the Independent.


“Empathy makes you a better innovator,” he told the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit in 2017, Yahoo reported.


Jane Fraser, Citigroup's CEO, embodies a similar ethos. She’s known for advocating a leadership style that marries frankness with compassion. “You can be a straight talker without being an unpleasant person,” Jane Fraser told a CNN interviewer in 2018, a Bloomberg columnist noted. After becoming CEO in 2021,  during the pandemic, she sympathized with employees who were having trouble with blurred work and life boundaries; banned video calls on Fridays; and promised to support workers who needed to travel for abortions after states enacted bans with the reversal of Roe v. Wade.


Her empathetic leadership is particularly crucial as Citigroup undergoes significant restructuring. “Empathy is not just about listening or being nice,” she wrote in a blog for the Milken Institute in 2021. “It is about understanding and insight. It is about forming connections and nurturing relationships. It is appreciating the relevant trends in both business and society. And what we have found at Citi is that empathy is foundational to how we deliver for our clients and how we attract and retain talent. Empathy enables the excellence we strive for every day. It helps create our edge.”


This sentiment echoes across various sectors, not just in the corporate world. Sister Marilyn Lacey, a California humanitarian dedicated to empowering women and girls in extreme poverty, showcases empathy on a global scale. Her organization, Mercy Beyond Borders, recognized by the Dalai Lama, funds schools for girls in Haiti and four African nations to help them become self-sufficient and escape child marriage. 


Sister Marilyn Lacey from Mercy Beyond Borders
Sister Marilyn Lacey from Mercy Beyond Borders

One of the most poignant aspects of Sister Marilyn's leadership is her deep connection with the communities she serves. As she provides resources, she also immerses herself in their reality, understanding their challenges and aspirations in helping young women become nurses, teachers, and engineers. 


Lacey learned how to communicate fearlessly with men in war-torn South Sudan toting AK-47s on their shoulders. She learned through experience to refrain from yes-or-no questions when speaking with people from hierarchical cultures, who do not say “no” to anyone in a position of authority. She also learned to appreciate the sheer determination of the girls her nonprofit serves, after learning how one of them rose at 4 a.m. to work on a neighbor’s farm to earn money to pay for school classes that began at 8 a.m.


Lacey tells Alphy that being open and curious is critical for effective communication with colleagues, clients, donors, and others. Less talking and more hearing is paramount as well. “I need to know where people are coming from, and that comes from really good listening skills,” Lacey says. “It means dropping the attitude that, ‘Oh, I’m better educated. I know more than you do.” 


She cited an example from her work in Haiti. Six months after supplying a scholarship program with $10,000, her program manager in Haiti was struggling with insufficient funds. The conversation went around and around with Lacey asking where the money had been spent. Finally, the woman patiently explained that the issue wasn't with her management but with the main bank in Port-au-Prince refusing to disburse funds to her village. “I'm jumping in with what I think to be the truth, insisting that there’s enough money in the bank, having been a math teacher in the past,” Laceys says. “And yet their reality was so different.”


Empathy enhances individual relationships and shapes the ethos of entire organizations, ultimately contributing to their success and societal impact. This principle is not only vital in human interaction but also in the way we leverage technology in our communication. 


Reflect AI, an AI communication add-on for email, embodies this ethos by detecting harmful and unlawful language in real-time while promoting messages that are empathetic and respectful. It serves as a digital embodiment of the empathetic principles espoused by leaders like Nadella, Fraser, and Sister Marilyn. By using Reflect AI, professionals can ensure their communication aligns with the empathetic leadership styles that have proven so effective for these influential figures. 


Incorporating this quality into our leadership practices isn't just beneficial — it's essential for navigating the complexities of the 21st century.


Carolyne Zinko is the editorial director and AI editor at Alphy.


Reflect AI by Alphy is an AI communication compliance solution that detects and flags language that is harmful, unlawful, and unethical in digital communication. Alphy was founded to reduce the risk of litigation from harmful and discriminatory communication while helping employees communicate more effectively.

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