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Empathy and Self-Control in Leadership

Empathy and self-controlWhen many organizations look for new, high-level leaders, they tend to focus mainly on technical competency. This tendency is understandable since technical competency is an important factor of success and is also relatively easy to detect. However, in terms of leadership, more is needed.


Having a highly effective set of technical skills but lacking the ability to motivate and inspire others to achieve will not be successful in today’s business environment. In a 2011 Harvard Business Review Article, Daniel Goleman discusses Emotional Intelligence (EI) as “a set of five skills that enable the best leaders to maximize their own and their followers’ performance.” The five skills are:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Motivation
  • Empathy
  • Social skills

Goleman makes the case that most of the personality traits that organizations list as being important for their high-level leadership to posses are in the realm of EI. Maybe more interesting is his implication that even the technical skills are somewhat dependent on EI. The brain is designed such that our emotional state can powerfully affect our cognitive efficiency.


Given the importance of EI, I generally see two main areas of improvement for most leaders that I encounter: self-regulation and empathy. Self-regulation is largely the ability to resist disruptive and overly critical responses to situations. As a parent to a teenager, I have seen how these negative responses can affect the self-image and confidence in my children. The same principles also apply to our work environments.

We need to make sure that when these situations happen, we control our responses and focus on constructive efforts. Instead of yelling about what went wrong, we need to focus more on solving the problem while making sure we all understand the consequences. I tend to lean toward quick judgment and clearly defined processes. In order to better self-regulate I must pause and learn more before making a judgment, and make efforts to be more tolerant of some level of ambiguity while we problem-solve. Even the Navy Seals see this skill as an important part of leadership by including the following statement in the Navy Seal Creed: “The ability to control my emotions and my actions, regardless of circumstance, sets me apart from other men.”


Empathy, while a separate EI skill, plays a big part in self-regulation. Goleman defines empathy as “considering others’ feelings, especially when making decisions.” We don’t often give much consideration to the emotional makeup of others and how that makeup will affect their performance. I’m never rude, but at times I might be indifferent to the emotional component of decision-making and totally focused on making the best tactical decision. Considering how others may engage or react to my decision and adjusting accordingly is important for success.


In today’s professional world we have an increasing dependence on the effectiveness of teams to get things done. We need to make a greater effort toward understanding the thoughts, fears, and motivations of our teams when making decisions. Investing in building real relationships with other- along with being a better listener-will go a long way in improving one’s empathy skills. You should make it a point to initiate conversations with others apart from just the work that you do together. Take the time to really get to know the people on your team.

You also need to resist the tendency to think about what points or counter-points you are going to make while others are talking and really listen to what they have to say. Using affirming language to show that you understand-and asking probing questions when you don’t-will give others the sense that you value their contribution. Practicing empathy in this way will not only lead your group to feel more valued, it will elicit more buy-in to decisions that are made, leading to a more successful team.

Scott Wilson is currently a Customer Experience Principal at a Fortune 50 company. He is also a marketing and business strategy consultant for small businesses and writes about Leadership, Communication, and Marketing on his blog at scottkwilson.com.

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