To say that extraordinary effort has been given to defining the characteristics of the ideal leader would be an extraordinary understatement. Researchers have spent literally countless hours trying to define this mythical individual. Any quality bookstore has an aisle or more dedicated to the subject of leadership. There are individuals that make their bones writing and lecturing on nothing but leadership. Everyone wants to know what can take them from individual contributor to shot caller. What is the trait that separates the ordinary leader from legendary one? What is that thing that turns an ordinary hamburger into a Big Mac? What is the special sauce? It's empathy.
How do I know this is true? Just look at all the interest we have in becoming leaders despite the inherent difficulty in handling the job well. Leadership handled expertly is a burdensome task. The great leader subjugates his or her needs for the good of the organization. This leader accepts blame for the shortcomings of the group, but allows its members to bask in its glory. This leader gets no 'off days' or bad moments as each will be carefully analyzed and internalized by followers, each episode of bad behavior condoning behavior great leaders cannot tolerate. A great leader strives for perfection in him or herself, yet knows to nurture others despite their fallibility. The great leader's gig is tough! Yet so many people wish to carry all the weight a leader must bear, no matter how well their 'dispositional build' can bear it. Why? They figure being the leader and enduring all it entails is better than the alternative. They would rather call shots than be shot by the shot caller. They would rather 'do' than get 'done in.' Experience tells them that following is an extremely risky proposition. In other words, they have suffered too long under leaders that lacked the proper empathy to lead.
Why is empathy so important? Empathy always seems to take a backseat in leadership texts to 'more important' traits, such as one's ability create and communicate vision, business and strategic acumen and effective people management. However, too many aspiring leaders, and even those currently in leadership positions, fail to realize that a strong sense of empathy is required to be truly effective in all of these 'headline' areas. An effective vision captures the imagination of those that will ultimately bring it closer to reality. Those who do not believe in the vision will not execute against it indefinitely. Therefore, the person that creates the vision must do so with the hopes, dreams, fears and aspirations of his or her constituency in mind. Similarly, an effective strategy must contemplate the role of the leader's organization within the larger marketplace. This organization must fill the needs most critical to its trading partners, which presupposes an intimate knowledge of those needs. Finally, an effective manager of people must use as many varieties of motivational approaches as there are people in his or her sphere of influence. Only then can the optimal marriage between the needs of the individual and the needs of the organization be consummated. Success in every one of these areas requires the leader to possess a deep sense of empathy in order to develop the correct course of action.
Yet there is something even deeper, more intangible, which makes empathy the lynchpin to leadership greatness. In any large and meaningful effort, there will be critical activity that will go unseen. Therefore, for this large and meaningful effort to be successful, every individual will have to make sacrifices (extra effort, extra time, extra thought, and extra action beyond the call of duty) that cannot be effectively rewarded, recompensed or even recognized. Why should followers sacrifice for an organization that is more likely to sacrifice them than sacrifice for them? If the leader does not demonstrate a caring for the follower, why should the follower care back? If the answer is fear, obligation or anything similar, this 'caring' demonstrated by followers will not endure. They will simply seek give their allegiance to an organization with which they can find the love they seek, the love we all need.
The lightning in the bottle, the magic, the transcendent force that makes the ordinary leader a special one is empathy. Leaders who care deeply for people will create and attract followers who do the same. Organizations filled with such people can change the world!