“Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.” – Publilius Syrus

Late February, the coronavirus was establishing a foothold here in the United States. Few people were infected, and little was known about the virus. I heard the news reports, read the Facebook posts, and engaged in idle chit chat. For me, the coronavirus was a non-issue, a non-event.

As March rolled in, I was driving cross country as the world was shutting down. Still, I had little concern about the COVID-19 crisis. After all, I am youngish (no age jokes from the peanut gallery!), I am in great shape, and I am in excellent health. I had nothing to worry about.

That all changed during a random conversation with a young woman who has an auto-immune condition, and she was visibly concerned. Then I started talking with others who were fearful of their grandparents/parents in nursing homes, loved ones with pre-existing conditions, and individuals who could not afford to get sick. These conversations changed my perspective.

I no longer looked at this crisis through my myopic eyes. I began to understand the bigger picture the COVID-19 presented. I started to become more empathic with the growing crisis.

I was in a comfortable place. I had a sense of certainty, and in the blink of an eye, it all changed. I am positive that many of you went through a similar experience as the past few weeks unfolded.  Suddenly, we were thrown outside of our comfort zones. We were forced into new leadership roles, and we weren’t prepared.

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Effective leadership is hard on any given day—even when things are going well. But when we find ourselves in the throes of a storm? That’s when true leaders emerge. However, this is not easy. There is no single playbook on how to respond to the maelstrom. But there is something that all leaders can do, and it’s leading with empathy.

So, what is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to feel with someone else, to share their emotional state, and to identify with someone else by adopting his or her perspective. Whereas sympathy is about feeling care and concern for someone, empathy is defined as a person’s ability to recognize and share in the emotions of someone else.

“Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.” – Mohsin Hamid

While everyone—including you—battles the tides of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety, remember that we all have a choice in how we want to respond. We get to decide if we’re going to be a more empathetic leader and, in so doing, hopefully, inspire others to do the same. When we choose to be more empathetic, we not only rise to take care of and support one another today but also strengthen our relationships to continue to do so when the storm passes.

As you start to focus on your emphatic leadership style, consider how you can work on the following:

  • Listen First: Listen to understand, not to speak. Leaders that possess a high degree of empathy listen first, process deeply, and decide the best way to respond—which is sometimes not to respond at all and just be an ear.
  • Cultivate Curiosity: Be curious about their world, instead of assuming you know what they’re thinking, feeling, and experiencing. The critical element here is asking thoughtful and open-ended questions and deeply listening to their answers.
  • Don’t Judge: Empathetic leaders do not judge; instead, they allow themselves to be open to new perspectives as they view the feelings of others as an opportunity to understand others better.
  • Personally Invest: Now, more than ever, it’s essential to take the time to connect with our teams, coworkers, and clients. For these relationships to grow and become more meaningful, empathic leaders must invest their time and energy. Leaders must show up and be present even when it’s not convenient.
  • Be Vulnerable: Contrary to popular beliefs, the most effective leaders are willing to share their uncertainties, take risks that push them past their comfort zones, and be open to emotional exposure. Empathic leaders establish a safe place for others to do the same. Two-way trust is formed when both parties are freely and respectfully sharing and listening.

In times like these, leaders need to answer the call, show-up, and stand-up. We need to be more empathetic, compassionate, kind, and sincere. Our teams are looking to us for comfort and solace so we need to rise to the occasion. How we act today will define how our team will view us as we return to the safety of the harbor.

Grab the helm, add a little empathy, and steer the ship!