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Leading with Empathy: A Leadership Imperative

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Empathic leadership is defined as the ability, capacity and willingness to understand and appreciate the needs and sensitivities of others; and, the act of being totally aware of the feelings, thoughts, emotional state and opinions of those you lead.

“Empathy” not unlike “purposefulness” (see: Purposeful Leadership During Times of Crisis, ejewishphilanthropy, 9/7/20), is often classified and associated with soft skills (on the list of hard vs soft leadership skills). More recently however, empathetic leadership is defined as an often-overlooked important performance indicator; and not until recently was empathy  viewed as a critically important leadership attribute or characteristic.

There have been numerous debates among psychologist and management experts as to whether empathy is innate or a learned trait. For the purposes of this post, I would like to posit that it’s probably a combination of both.

As an example, a person can be born lacking an empathetic disposition or personality and yet have the capacity and bandwidth to be trained and coached to exhibit empathy. By the same token, an individual may in fact be empathetic to family members and to close friends, but unable to demonstrate this disposition when interacting with peers, coworkers or subordinates.

For those of us who serve in school leadership roles, it is vital, now more than ever, especially in a post-COVID “new normal” world, to exhibit empathy to our students, their parents and to the faculty whom we supervise. It is not to be viewed as an expectation on the principal’s checklist , but rather as a critically important indispensable leadership attribute.

Finally, it is important to note that irrespective of whether a person is empathetic, he or she can still be considered an effective leader. The only difference however is that the empathetic leader may have the “leading edge” over the non empathetic leader by reaching and communicating with staff or subordinates on a deeper and more purposeful level.

The Principal as Empathetic Leader

One of the most important responsibilities of a Principal( in any school), is to serve as an instructional leader and to provide his/her staff with support, direction and understanding. This means motivating, encouraging and inspiring the highest level of confidence, trust and performance on the part of teachers and students.

More often than not, many of us in educational leadership posts, are called upon to undertake a myriad of challenges which not only require insight, expertise and a skill-set in model supervisory practice, but also  sensitivity and a demeanor which is empathic in nature.

Critical to this challenge is the ability and capacity of the Principal to exhibit a high degree of emotional support, understanding and sensitivity; as well as a deep intuitive appreciation for the emotional, intellectual and personal disposition of the individual he or is supervising.

This is where “empathic leadership”  becomes front and center and therefore a sine qua non for effective supervision and guidance.

Finally, it is important to note that Principals must always ensure that there are social and emotional boundaries and a healthy balance between the Principal as supervisor and the teacher. It is there imperative that the principal  continuously maintain a highly professional relationship with teachers and those being supervised. This is where an over reliance or emphasis on empathetic interaction may lead to a blurring of the professional lines of responsibility. Remember, although this may appear to be cold, bold and even antithetic,  the teachers and staff you supervise are employees of the same institution in which you work. They should never be treated as close friends or family members. The Principal-teacher relationship demands a level of separation and professional perspective. And, above all, it requires a healthy and respectful relationship which ensures a level of autonomy, respect, professional transparency, confidentiality and accountability.

This later point suggests that a principal’s role and responsibility, should, like in any other professional leadership position be guided by a ” moral leadership compass” and a best/model practice “leadership roadmap”.

A Profile of Empathetic Leadership in Schools

Schools are powerful teaching and learning ecosystems which rely totally upon their human resources for effective and meaningful interaction. This culture of interaction between and among students, teachers and parents and administrators is maximized and enhanced when the leadership of the school creates and ensures an environment which encourages, supports and celebrates empathetic thinking, collaboration and teamwork.

As we know, schools do not function or operate as autocratic institutions, but rather as organizations that aspire to create the most conducive environments possible for maximum academic, social and emotional growth of its students. At the same time schools must always ensure that each teacher on staff is accorded the opportunity to grow professionally and to receive the guidance, support and feedback commensurate with his/her teaching performance and impact.

In an effort to provide a school’s faculty and staff with a school culture conducive for growth and effectiveness, the Principal may use a wide variety of leadership  styles and approaches which utilizes the power of empathetic leadership.

Several of these approaches may include, but not be limited to:

  • Becoming an active listener;
  • Allowing the teacher to know that you are trying to put yourself in his/er shoes;
  • Using the “we” word more often than the word “me”
  • Asking meaningful and relevant questions instead of always trying to provide answers or advice;
  • Monitoring non-verbal cues and body language;
  • Being cognizant of  time, but don’t limit the conversation because you must to rush off to the next meeting or appointment ;
  • Promote teamwork and collaboration;
  • Acknowledge a teacher’s success privately and publicly; and, always explore ways to publicly  promote and celebrate those success;
  • Do not be patronizing. It’s the worst way to exhibit empathy. In fact, it may have the opposite impact;
  • Ask your teachers and staff  “how they are doing” –  even in passing while walking down a school corridor;
  • Ask teachers for their opinions, ideas and feedback, as well as suggestions;
  • Don’t be judgemental;
  • Always think about ways in which you can be more helpful to your teachers and staff;
  • Be fully present at meetings by leaving your cell phone in your pocket;
  • Always give credit where and when credit is due (don’t hold back, time passes by and there are a;most never ever do-overs);
  • Keep a keen eye open for any potential mental health concerns that may arise;
  • Assist your teachers and staff prioritize their growing list of teaching and administrative duties and responsibilities;
  • Never make a commitment or promise if there is any doubt that you can actually deliver on the commitment/promise;
  • Always ask your staff about their family, how they are doing, their health, etc. But never be intrusive;
  • Make sure that your teachers feel secure in their positions in school and try tirelessly to reduce unnecessary stress or anxiety about their assignments;

One can literally write a dissertation on each of the above approaches. But the one principle to always keep in mind is that “timing” is essential. Principals more often than not, are only given one shot to respond to specific faculty challenges.  If you are inclined to say something positive or reinforcing, don’t wait or procrastinate….Just Do It!

The power and impact of immediate “real time” responses and actions are critical. Dont wait and don’t overthink.  It will only lead to “could have, would have, should have”  which as we know creates regret.

Motivating Your Faculty and Staff

With rare exceptions, positive reinforcement, constructive feedback and expressions of sincere empathy exhibited by the Principal or a supervisor can have a very powerful and lasting impact on teacher and staff morale.

This realization is often accepted by Principals on an intellectual level but not necessarily in real time. The reason for this disparity may be attributed to a Principal’s uncertainty or insecurity due to a lack of professional experience, exposure, training or personal disposition. It is therefore suggested that in these unique cases, the Principal will need to understand and embrace his or her role as an empathetic leader through additional coaching, training and experience. To be sure, the more exposure to these modalities, the greater the odds that the Principal will development and apply empathetic responses to a staff’s current and emerging needs and  concerns.

In the final analysis, the  most powerful motivator for positive faculty performance  and effectiveness  is through is a supervisor who inspires educational excellence, promotes a growth mindset and encourages  environments which celebrates positivity and empathy.

A Final Word………… 

Although this BLOG addresses the topic of empathic leadership from a Principal-Teacher perspective, these same principles  can also apply to students, parents and school administrators. Empathetic leadership has not limits and knows no boundaries.

In  Dr. Brene Brown’s book entitled “Dare to Lead” she posits that empathy “is one of the linchpins of cultures built on connection and trust“.   Coincidentally, these two concepts – connection and trust – are the very foundation upon our schools and their leaders are built.

About the Author
Dr. Chaim Botwinick is currently Principal of the Hebrew Academy Community Day School in Margate FL and Executive Coach and Consultant. He served as president and CEO of the central agency for Jewish education in Baltimore and in Miami. He has published and lectured extensively on topics relating to education, strategic planing and leadership development. Dr. Botwinick is Author of “Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness”, Brown Books, 2011
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