Empathy: The Secret of Effective Leaders -By Taiwo Odukoya

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Taiwo Odukoya

If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together. – (1 Corinthians 12:26)

In 1917, the famous Mahatma Gandhi established the Sabamarti Ashram. The goal was to step into the shoes of peasants and the downtrodden. He and his followers grew their own food, spun their own cloth, and cleaned out the latrines – a job usually relegated to the Untouchable (Dalit) caste. Gandhi’s deep empathy roused millions of Indians who supported him in the struggle for independence from the British. As a journalist, Dr. Phillips Talbot recalled, “Gandhi had an extraordinary capacity to talk to this massive crowd on a one-to-one basis; I think that everybody sitting there thought that Gandhi was talking to him.” While I am not advocating that you abandon your comforts and start walking barefooted on the road, there is a sense in which independent India was birthed by one leader’s strategic empathy. And today we still see the trickledown effect, explaining why India is still the world’s largest democracy.

In his book Leaders Eat Last, leadership expert Simon Sinek describes empathy, the ability to recognise and share other people’s feelings, as the most important instrument in a leader’s toolbox.

To understand how people feel is to understand how it affects their needs and how that, in turn, affects their perception of the leadership’s effectiveness and their willingness to cooperate. People are typically willing to make sacrifices for the common cause if and when they know the leader cares about them.

These leaders:

• Exhibit high emotional intelligence, that is, they develop a feedback mechanism that enables them hear, see and experience what the people are going through;
• Not only welcome opposing views but learn from them to develop a workable strategy;
• Are always willing to accept responsibility when they are wrong and adjust appropriately;
• Lead by example and make the interest of the masses a priority;
• Consciously build trust even across seemingly impossible divides.

It is in moments of temporary distress, such as currently being faced in Nigeria today, that leaders at every level need to connect to the feelings and experiences of the people, like we are just beginning to see.

The former American President Bill Clinton had an unusual knack for connecting with people and gaining the cooperation of even his enemies. Speaking about the work of the Clinton Foundation at an event in 2006, he spoke about being in Northern Africa and how the people passing each other on the mountains often greeted themselves, not with a “hello” or a “hi,” but by saying, “I see you.”

Think about that for a second,” said Clinton. “It confers dignity. Think about all the people you never see. The people that turned on the lights here, arranged the sound equipment, those who will clean this place up after we walk out. I am convinced that if we truly see each other the way we now only do in a moment of common understanding over heartbreak, if we could do that on a daily basis, the 21st Century will be far more peaceful and prosperous than the last one was, and these young people will grow up in the most exciting time in human history.”

For any nation to effectively develop, it will require the cooperation of the masses. The leaders then will need to let them know that they “see them”; that they hear their frustrations loud and clear and will do everything within their powers to alleviate their problems and satisfy their yearnings. The average Nigerian views leaders as selfish and corrupt, rather than caring. If our current crop of leaders, at every level, federal, state and local, would model a different style of leadership where empathy and competence get the job done, we would have built a new and different Nigeria, and indeed set a standard for the rest of Africa. I believe we can do it.


Taiwo Odukoya, a leadership and relationship expert, is the Senior Pastor of The Fountain of Life Church.