Ann Lamont
Ann Lamont

Empathetic leadership is critical for innovation for all

by Ann Lamont. Practicing empathetic leadership is difficult, but benefits our customers and indeed, the entire planet.

by Ann Lamont. Otto Scharmer from MIT’s Centre for Organisational Learning writes that “successful leadership depends on the quality of attention and intention that the leader brings to any situation. Two leaders in the same circumstances doing the same thing can bring about completely different outcomes, depending on the inner place from which each operates.” The late Bill O’Brien, who had served as CEO of Hanover Insurance, stated that in leading profound change, “[t]he success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervenor”.

Business is operating in a time of profound change and the ability of organisational leadership to understand their own perspectives and blind spots in engaging with others is critical in managing change. This ability is a prerequisite to being an empathetic leader able to facilitate employee engagement, organisational purpose, innovation, learning and agility, and customer centredness, the cornerstones of effective 21st century companies.

Empathy is defined as the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation. It invites experiencing another person’s point of view, rather than just one’s own. The etymology of the word comes from the Greek “in feeling”. Behavioural scientists believe empathy to have emerged from parenting and to have deep roots in our brains, bodies, and evolutionary history. Developing empathy is crucial for establishing relationships, behaving compassionately and enables prosocial or helping behaviours that come from within, rather than being forced.

Empathetic leadership enables leaders to understand and attract top talent from different backgrounds and to retain and keep employees engaged. It creates a culture of innovation, learning and customer centeredness driven by leaders who are able to understand and feel the needs of key stakeholders, thus moving beyond their corporate and personal bubbles to draw on diverse experiences and perspectives to drive innovation and a whole systems stakeholder-driven approach to business.

As Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO states, “It’s not ‘us versus them’ or even ‘us on behalf of them’. For a design thinker it has to be ‘us with them’.” Practicing empathetic leadership is however difficult. In the work done by Scott Barry Kaufman published in Scientific American, he shows empathy is not necessarily as good a force in society as one hopes for. His research shows that it is much easier and more natural to feel empathy for one’s own in-group. It is much more complex and difficult, and indeed often not done, to feel empathy for your own out-group. In some instances, this deep empathy for those you associate with and relate to increases polarisation rather than resolving it.

Leadership practice

Organisational leaders need to be aware of this natural tendency to feel empathy more easily for those like themselves. In engaging with employees, it is easy to fall into the trap of holding empathy for specific individuals and neglecting the need to be empathetic towards the employees of the organisation as a whole. Equally empathising with stakeholders reflecting diverse needs and perspectives is what drives innovation. If organisational leaders do not understand their own patterns of thinking when practising empathy, it is will be difficult to move beyond organisational culture and inward thinking. Many design thinking and customer design processes focus very little on the personal and organisational lens which we each bring in deeply understanding our customer and stakeholders.

The leadership practice to move beyond personal patterns of thoughts and beliefs relates to the quality of listening that leaders are able to practise. The work of Otto Scharmer defines four levels of listening:

  1. The first is generally referred to as downloading and although appearing to listen to someone else, one is very much listening to one’s own inner voice and replaying one’s own thoughts, patterns, and belief systems.
  2. The second level of listening relates to factual listening and is about engaging with data and asking for facts. Facts can however be used to reconfirm what may already be believed.
  3. The third level of listening is empathetic listening, where a leader can suspend personal preconceived patterns and perspectives and step into the shoes of another to understand or feel what they are thinking or experiencing. It requires deep listening and observation.
  4. The last level of listening is called generative listening, where a leader can listen to diverse perspectives and views and work collaboratively to co-create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. This requires deep awareness and connection with self that enables flow and generative and creative capability. It requires an ability to drop into self, whilst simultaneously feeling a connection to others.
A systems approach to listening

Organisational leaders who can engage in generative listening and take a whole systems approach to product and service can steer an approach to business that it is inclusive of, but beyond the customer. In product design, showing empathy in engaging and observing customer needs should be expanded to an empathetic approach to all stakeholders who will be impacted in some way by that product.

I have worked in more forward-thinking organisations where the entire system of stakeholders, including role-playing for the earth, is “brought into a room” for product design. The ability to do this creates beneficial decision making, and moves us away from the concept of trade-off to one of mutual benefit and longer-term holistic systems thinking. Imagine if retailers and brands took this holistic empathetic driven approach to designing new products? Design thinking would include deep reflection, learning and understanding of self; and would include representatives of the earth, the ocean, communities, and customers.

I believe empathetic leadership driven by the ability to deeply listen, will be the critical leadership skill required by organisational leaders in navigating the complexity of balancing diverse stakeholder requirements in today’s world and ensuring positives outcomes for all, including the planet, rather than only for identified customer segments.


Main image credit: Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash.


Ann Lamont has spent her career supporting individuals, organisations, and society to find solutions to the complex challenges of our times. She has significant business experience and has been an investment banker at Rand Merchant Bank; strategy consultant for Monitor Company; and until recently an Executive Director at EY. She has with partnered recently with DiiVe, a global transformational learning organisation focused on equipping young people with 5IR capabilities and DiiVe Collective, a strategy consultancy focusing on Shared Value. She is a Synergos Senior Fellow and Aspen Global Leadership Network Fellow.


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