Empathy. Definition: feeling of concern and understanding for another’s situation or feelings.

Have you ever met someone who didn’t seem to understand who you were, how you felt, or what you were going through? Maybe you didn’t consciously think “Gee, this guy lacks empathy” but maybe you thought about it in other terms. Maybe you felt the person “didn’t get it” or “just didn’t care.” If you’ve thought that before, then you’ve had an experience with one of two people; someone who lacked empathy or someone who didn’t show empathy.

My own position in my business has put me in contact with hundreds, maybe thousands, of people in leadership positions. Most of these leaders seem to be genuinely nice people who care about others and are empathetic. However, I’ve seen plenty of people who have been placed in leadership positions and yet seem to utterly lack the ability to understand how another person thinks or feels. When someone in a leadership position does not understand the feelings of others they are more likely to use the power they have, perhaps unintentionally, in ways that hurt others.

Empathy is a factor that determines what we believe to be right or wrong. Another is our feelings about obeying laws and rules set forth by organizations such as governments, religions, and employers, and yet another factor is the rules we set for ourselves. But rules are finite, and we cannot possibly know all the rules we are given, nor can we effectively create and remember rules for ourselves to govern every possible situation. Rules can be helpful in determining what we should and shouldn’t do, but we must depend on something else when rules fall short. You could call it a conscience or a moral compass. Whatever you call it, it affects how you choose to behave towards other human beings and it is affected by your ability to empathize with others.

For example, let’s suppose you’re a real estate investor looking for a house to buy and rent out. As you’re searching through an area you like, you see a home for sale and schedule an appointment to look at the property and talk with the seller. During your appointment as you talk with the seller you perceive that they are eager to sell. Later, you are talking with an acquaintence who lives in the neighborhood and when you mention that you looked at this particular house they say “Oh yeah, that family is having some financial problems. I think they’re being forced to sell the home.”

Is your first reaction to think “Yes! I’ve found a seller who’s in a bind so I can pick up the house at a discount and get a great deal.” Or, do you think, “Man, that stinks for that family. I’d hate to be that husband because I know he must be feeling pretty discouraged and low about not being able to hold on to the house.”

I believe most of us would think both thoughts almost simultaneously. But there are some people who would only think about the business opportunity, and the plight of the family would never enter into their minds as a serious consideration. There are also those who feel they should consider the plight of the family, but who care more about appearing to be empathetic than truly being empathetic. That is, they show empathy they don’t have.

The person who lack empathy might be picture perfect in every other way. They might obey the law and live their religion. But is there a law or rule that tells you to not take advantage of another’s financial tragedy in order to buy their house for a lower price? That’s where that moral compass comes into play. The truly empathetic person might be more likely to work out a situation that is a win-win, one that benefits both himself as well as the seller. The person who has no empathy will drive for the best deal for himself, no matter the consequences for the family, even if by a small sacrifice he could do a large favor for the family. The person who understands empathy but doesn’t feel it will look for ways to appear empathetic while still driving a deal that is as close as possible to the maximum benefit for himself.

What does all of this have to do with leadership? Simply put, we see people who don’t have empathy as jerks, and we don’t like to follow jerks. We may follow them out of fear, greed, or some other sense of obligation, but we won’t follow them because we’re excited about it. That is, we may be excited for a time, but only until we learn who they really are.

Can someone entirely devoid of empathy hold important leadership positions? Can they be successful? Can they accomplish good things? Of course they can, but we will never know how much more they might have accomplished had they been more empathetic, nor how history may have been entirely different. How many world leaders have been successful in doing good things for their countries, but at the same time have been guilty of attrocities such as large-scale murder? Would they have committed those crimes had they had any empathy? What about business leaders like those at Enron or Tyco? Certainly those leaders accomplished extraordinary things that benefitted many for a time, but would those leaders have made the same choices that led to their downfalls had they possessed enough empathy to worry about the long-term effects of their actions on the employees and shareholders for whom they had responsibility?

In the case of corporate scandals we see the effects of leaders who don’t have empathy. But leaders who have empathy must also make sure they show empathy. A lack of showing empathy won’t lead to poor decisions when it comes to accounting, but it might fail to inspire employees while a business is experiencing challenges to its survival. Sometimes all an employee needs to know is that the person tasked with being their manager understands how they feel, and that feeling vs. the lack of it can mean the difference between that employee staying or leaving, and that employee staying or leaving might affect the course of the entire business, especially if it’s not just one employee but many.

Empathy should also be a factor when selecting business partners. I am reminded of a story I heard from Rick Farr about an opportunity he had to go into a partnership on the some real estate. He pulled out and when the partner, who was also a friend, asked him why, his response was “I can see that your primary consideration in this deal is yourself, and I don’t want to be a part of it. I want to be in a partnership where my partner is more concerned about my well being than his own, and I am more concerned about him than myself.” If you feel that such partnerships where your partner cares more about you than himself and vice versa are the kind you want to develop, I’d recommend you make sure your partner is empathetic.

Where does empathy come from? I believe it may be inherent, that is, some people are just naturally more empathetic, but I believe it can also be developed through practice. I have a hard time believing that any person might be incapable of being empathetic unless they’ve become that way over time through extreme circumstances and have reached a point of no return. I believe how much empathy a person has is a choice that begins with a desire. If you want to be empathetic, you’ll make choices that help you develop it, and then you’ll have it. If you have it that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be rich and successful by any worldly standard, but I, for one, will follow somebody who has empathy over somebody who doesn’t, regardless of their success, any day of the week.