Is Empathy the Hardest Leadership Skill to Learn?

Is Empathy the Hardest Leadership Skill to Learn?

Leadership is just as much about relating to others as it is to do with individual strengths. Consequently, so-called soft skills have a crucial part to play in effective leadership development.

However, the paradox is, that soft skills, such as empathy, can be the hardest ones of all to learn.

Lisa Gower, of Ubuntu HR, people management and leadership development specialists, explains why being empathetic is both a necessary leadership quality and, sometimes, difficult to get to grips with.

Dealing With Difficult Situations

Empathy is about understanding others. It is about seeing things as if you were the other person, putting yourself in their shoes.

“Empathy is a moral value. As such, many people aspire to being empathic. However, when push comes to shove, empathy is often neglected.”

In leadership, where there are differences of opinion or workplace conflict, empathy can end up being conspicuously lacking.

“We might want to be empathic, but when there is conflict we can end up aggressively standing our ground, defending our opinion and arguing against someone else’s viewpoint”

Lisa Gower, Ubuntu HR

Empathic skills are also often downplayed when it comes to the business of negotiation.

“There is an assumption that being empathetic has its place, but only in situations where we want to help others, that otherwise it makes us too vulnerable, when really we want to display boldness in leadership.”

This is a misconception. Empathy is important in any interaction, and learning to practice it is therefore an essential leadership skill.

The Benefits of Empathy

“Empathy allows you to see someone else’s perspective, which, in turn, helps you see the bigger picture.”

“Leadership is about understanding situations, weighing them up, before making critical decisions.  The more thorough your understanding, the more likely you are to achieve your goals.”

“Leaders have to bring others along with them, getting them to buy in to their vision. Here, being empathetic helps enormously”

Lisa Gower, Ubuntu HR

“It allows you to reach consensus. Without it you cannot achieve mutually acceptable solutions. When you’re discussing something, it’s vital that you understand the opinions, feelings and intentions of the other person.”

There is also a strong feelgood factor to empathy. It makes others feel good if you give voice to their own concerns and feelings; and it makes you feel rewarded in being genuinely helpful to others.

“Fundamentally, empathy enables you to connect with others on a more profound level.”

What Makes Empathy Difficult to Master?

There are barriers to empathy that come from the perception that it might indicate weak leadership.

However, understanding someone else’s perspective does not mean you agree with it.

“Many people misunderstand empathy as being compliant and having to agree with other viewpoints. It’s not. It’s just about understanding these viewpoints”

Lisa Gower, Ubuntu HR

“Empathy is not a display of weakness. In fact, an ability to empathise and take on board different views is a leadership strength. Understanding others should not prevent you from being assertive.”

Learning to be empathic takes time and patience.

“Like any skill, you have to practice it,” Lisa concludes.  “This means, as a leader, you should proactively be a role model for empathic behaviour. Start listening.”

To discover how to strengthen your leadership skills, please call Ubuntu HR on 0161 478 8293 or visit

Additionally, Ubuntu HR has devised a report with HR Aspects Magazine, which looks at;

  • Discovering talent
  • Why investing in leadership training is critical for your business
  • The qualities leaders require to become vital agents of change

To get a copy of the report, visit