It takes several qualities to make a great leader. Honesty. Integrity. Commitment. Passion. Confidence. But, above all, empathy. 

Good leaders have to understand their people. They have to connect. Look at former US President Barack Obama. Many call him the empathizer-in-chief. And with good reason. He listened to people, he understood their problems, and he spoke to them directly.

At no time in recent history has empathy been more important than now. As the world grapples with the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, political leaders need empathy and kindness to both reassure and uplift their worried citizens.

Some people believe empathy is the same as sympathy, but they aren’t the same. Sympathy is a feeling or expression of concern, while empathy goes beyond and is the ability to understand the thoughts or feelings of another. 

And one leader who’s relied on empathy—apart from science, of course—is New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. The 39-year-old leader’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has drawn praise from across the world for the compassion and kindness of her approach. 

Her leadership style is based on quick decision-making and effective crisis management, but she also uses empathy to deal with a crisis. Her messages are not only reassuring but they also strike a chord with the people of New Zealand. 

Ardern was quick to take decisions as soon the coronavirus crisis began: She canceled an event to mark the first anniversary of the Christchurch shooting after the WHO announced the pandemic and New Zealand decided to self-isolate for two weeks.

Post-announcement; she went on to Facebook Live from her home, telling New Zealanders that she wanted to “check in with everyone as we prepare to hunker down for a few weeks”.

The message was simple: She’s one of the people. People could relate when she apologized for wearing a casual sweater at the Facebook Live meeting, saying she’d just put her toddler to bed.

Also, her message to stay safe and stay home was simple: “By and large, we're very keen that you stay home—that you stay within what we call your bubble, the bubble of people that you'll be with for the next four weeks.”

Since then, Ardern has frequently gone on Facebook Live and taken questions to connect with her people, earning her a reputation for being a kind and compassionate leader in touch with the people. 

At a time when people are staring at an uncertain future, Ardern listens and shows she cares. She shows her empathy by acknowledging the challenges of staying home such as the disruption to family and work lives or the inability to attend the funerals of a “loved one” because of the ban on large funerals during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Ardern acknowledged that a 10-person limit on funerals was “causing pain”, but assured them it was a short-term measure.

“The thing I have found, as a human, hardest in all of this has been funerals and tangihanga (traditional Maori funeral rite),” Ardern said. “The one thing I also know is that funerals and tangi are a place where you want to comfort people, that is your natural instinct that’s why we come together.”

Ardern also shows people she cares by using relatable and practical examples when she urges people to stay home. For instance, she urged people to stay local because what if their car broke down in some remote destination? It’s a simple example but it shows she connects with people.

These are stressful times and it’s never been more important to be empathetic. Leaders have to lead with empathy, employers have to show they care for their employees, and parents have to listen to their children. 

Empathy isn’t taken seriously enough, but it is a key skill for success. For this, we need to develop the EAR of Listening, found in Harappa's course on Listening Actively. When expanded, EAR stands for Empathy, Authenticity, and Respect. In other words, to truly understand how we can help those in need, we need to employ all three virtues.

How do you do that? Atticus Finch has the answer in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: “You can never understand someone unless you understand their point of view, climb in that person’s skin, or stand and walk in that person’s shoes.”


You may also want to check out our Managing Teamwork course from Harappa Education and learn to build great relationships at the workplace. Explore our Online Courses and begin your journey towards professional success.


Sugita Katyal is an Associate Director with the Curriculum team at Harappa Education. A former journalist and history major, she loves watching crime shows.

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