What does it take to be a great leader? This answer is changing as more examples of powerful feminine leadership styles emerge on the public stage.
Former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is one of the best case studies of empathetic leadership, renowned for her compassionate yet convincing leadership style.
But gendered myths and misconceptions still exist about empathetic leaders, specifically when it comes to whether they have what it takes to be assertive and persuasive.
We’re here to help you lean into a new era of leadership and embrace the benefits of feminine leadership styles that emphasise compassion and collaboration over competition. Keep reading to discover how to embrace empathy as your leadership superpower while also being a persuasive decision-maker.
Why we need to rethink what leadership looks like in 2023 and beyond
While much progress has been made towards gender equality, we still have a long way to go when it comes to recognising and celebrating new styles of leadership.
Traditionally, leadership has been defined in masculine terms. A capable leader was seen as assertive, ‘ballsy’ and competitive, typically taking a hierarchical approach to making decisions.
In order to succeed and rise through the ranks of an organisation, women were often expected to replicate masculine leadership traits (such as being dominant, forceful and ambitious).
But this proves at odds with the feminine approach to leadership, which taps into our strengths and traits as kind, sympathetic and collaborative leaders.
As a result, gender stereotypes are one of the many factors holding women back from progressing to senior leadership positions. Research from Monash Business School reveals that men statically dominate the top positions in companies due to gendered biases that assess female leaders in less positive terms (despite there being no difference in capabilities between male and female leaders).
Interestingly, new research demonstrates that the traditional ‘masculine’ approach to leadership (hierarchical and authoritative) is proving outdated and less effective. On the flip side, research shows that leaders who practice empathy tend to have more engaged teams and even more profitable businesses.
In 2023 (and beyond), we’re facing an incredibly uncertain world. Between global conflicts, whispers of recession and the ongoing impacts of the pandemic, employees are facing declining levels of mental health (with 42% of people reporting their mental health to have worsened over the past three years). Now, more than ever, teams need supportive, empathetic leaders who are able to build trust, foster collaboration and inspire innovation.
Practical tips to embrace empathetic leadership
Empathetic leaders require high levels of emotional intelligence, able to tune into the needs of others and tackle problems in a collaborative, constructive way that builds trust.
In fact, empathy is one of the most powerful soft skills a leader can develop – and the research backs this up. A study by Catalyst found that leading with empathy boosts innovation, employee engagement and retention while also helping to foster more inclusive workplaces, too.
So, how can you take an empathetic approach to leadership while still being assertive and asking for what you need and want? We’re sharing our top tips and tricks for being an empathetic yet capable and persuasive leader:
- Actively listen: Tune into not just what your team are saying but how they’re feeling (inside and outside the office). Show a genuine interest in what your people have to say, and don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions to learn more about what they’re thinking, feeling and experiencing. Make sure you’re scheduling regular 1:1 meetings with your direct reports and proactively check-in with team members to demonstrate you’re making their well-being a priority.
- Create an open and inclusive line of communication: Communicating with your team shouldn’t just be on your terms. Instead, you have to create a safe and inclusive space where your team feels comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings and coming to you outside of scheduled 1:1 meetings.
- Be an advocate for your team: Being an empathetic leader means effectively advocating for the needs of others, particularly your direct reports. If changes are proposed that will negatively impact your team, work collaboratively with other senior leaders to find an alternative solution. Advocate for your team in a way that prioritises their needs, while also balancing the needs of the wider business and organisation.
- Lead with empathy: Studies show that empathy has significant benefits for retention, innovation, engagement and growth in a business. That’s why empathy has to be at the core of what you do and how you communicate. From leading meetings to collaborating on projects, take the time to read the room, ask for input and work together to ensure everyone feels heard and valued.
How to balance empathy and assertiveness as a leader
Think empathy and assertiveness are opposing traits? Think again. Leading with empathy doesn’t have to come at the cost of being a confident, capable and persuasive decision-maker.
Whenever you’re faced with a tough decision or called to speak up as a leader, you need to consider both:
- What do you want to achieve in this interaction? What is your ideal outcome?
- What are the other person’s needs or views on the situation?
The key to being both empathetic and assertive is to go into every interaction with a mindset of collaboration, cooperation and compromise. Rather than trying to convince the other person to take your side, it’s about approaching situations with an open mind and problem-solving lens.
In tangible terms, this means:
- Establishing the context around the decision that needs to be made: what is the bigger goals or objective you’re trying to achieve?
- Actively listening and being open to new perspectives and ways of thinking.
- Asking questions to better understand the other person’s point of view, and repeating their views or position back to them for clarity.
- Working through problems and differing perspectives together to reach a compromise that everyone is comfortable with, rather than making unilateral decisions.
As we move away from a single definition of leadership, it’s time to embrace the benefits of empathetic leadership. Not only are empathetic leaders producing more engaged, loyal teams, but they’re able to inspire higher levels of productivity to boost the bottom lines for businesses, too.
By learning how to balance empathy with assertiveness, you can effectively communicate your ideas and rise through the ranks as an effective leader.