Dissecting Leadership: Empathy

We’ve finally reached the last of the Big Three of Leadership! Just to refresh, we have been talking about what qualities make people Leaders. As you may recall, the title of “leader” is not on this list… Leaders sometimes show up when you least expect them.

In case you missed out on our previous Big Three, we have links!

These two aren’t always easy, but they can be learned. There are many tools out there that can help you hone in on your goals. You can do the homework and understand your political and physical resources. But this last one — empathy… It’s a little harder to pin down. Is there such a thing as an Empathy Textbook? How does one learn empathy?

For that matter, what the heck is empathy? That sounds awfully squishy. Surgeons don’t do emotionally squishy things. We stay practical when it comes to squishy. <insert surgery joke here>

Let’s start with the Merriam-Webster official definition of “empathy”.


The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner

also the capacity for this


Hmm… okay. So does this mean that I have to feel sorry for everyone in order to understand them? Not quite. The folks at Merriam-Webster also include this following convenient comparison:

Sympathy vs. Empathy:

Sympathy and empathy are closely related words, bound by shared origins and the similar circumstances in which each is applicable, yet they are not synonymous. For one thing, sympathy is considerably older than empathy, having existed in our language for several hundred years before its cousin was introduced, and its greater age is reflected in a wider breadth of meaning. Sympathy may refer to “feelings of loyalty” or “unity or harmony in action or effect,” meanings not shared by empathy. In the contexts where the two words do overlap, sympathy implies sharing (or having the capacity to share) the feelings of another, while empathy tends to be used to mean imagining, or having the capacity to imagine, feelings that one does not actually have.

Ah, that’s the difference! Empathy doesn’t mean that you have to have all of those warm, fuzzy feelings for each and every person you meet. Whew! Surgeons aren’t always good at warm and fuzzy…

From these definitions, we learn that empathy can be a powerful tool. By imagining the motivations and reactions of others, we are able to better understand how to align them to a common goal. Once again, our friend Simon Sinek has some great comments on how this can work favorably for successful leaders.

We see the utility of empathy everywhere once we realize this pattern. Just for fun, here are a few more articles that demonstrate how powerful this can be:

So how do we acquire this skill? Are we born with it? Can the prickliest cactus personality learn how to be more empathetic?

Maybe… Some people are naturally good at this. Kudos to them! But for the rest of us, this may take a little practice. As a surgeon, I can say that empathy was not a skill that was stressed during my training. In fact, empathy was often looked at as a weakness. I am quite sure that I had a personality shift over all of those stressful long call nights, and not for the better. Fortunately, my family didn’t disown me for my bad behavior. Eventually, I hope I shed some of those less-lovable personality traits that I picked up along the way. At least my family agrees to be seen in public we me again these days.

Over time, however, I think most physicians realize that using empathy when dealing with patients — and partners — can make a potentially difficult discussion much less painful on all sides. No doctor relishes the opportunity to bring a patient to tears with bad news or frustrating results, but these things do happen. Each time they do, I think we have the opportunity to learn from this pattern and to change how we approach a similar situation in the future.

Perhaps this isn’t such a squishy skill after all…

There’s no “empathy certification” or online course that will make you a master of this talent. It’s just dedication and hard work. Paying attention to those little details time and time again. Remembering to put yourself in someone else’s shoes when you approach them as a team member. If you can understand what motivates that person, you can tailor your approach to help get them aligned with your team’s goals. Not everyone is motivated by money. Not everyone is motivated by praise. Or fear. Or advancement. We don’t have to understand the “why” of this. We just need to see the “why” of others as a way to help them be the best they can be.


So today’s Downloadable Goodness is not rocket science. In fact, it’s pretty simple. Empathy is learned by doing. This worksheet will hopefully help you to organize your approach, but I would encourage you to just go out and practice standing in the shoes of everyone you meet for the next couple of days during your interactions. See what happens. My bet? You’ll get at least one smile that you otherwise might have missed out of someone. Squishy, but sometimes that’s okay.

So we’ve done it! We’ve looked at each of the Big Three of Leadership! My hope is that you’ve found at least one little tidbit that has been helpful in all of this. For the final post in this series, we’ll wrap everything up.

Until then…


Photo Credit: MikesPhotos | Pixabay

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