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Empathy matters most for effective leadership, says study
While senior executives are rated highest in business competence, it is their empathy and trustworthiness that are the best predictors of overall effective leadership, according to a study of 1,405 leaders in 47 organisations by consultants BlessingWhite.
BlessingWhite - based in Princeton, NJ, with locations in London, Chicago, San Francisco and Melbourne - says the six-year study analysed feedback on the executives from nearly 8,000 colleagues including direct reports, peers and superiors.
Respondents were asked to rate the individuals in 54 areas, which were combined into eight categories spanning both business and personal characteristics.
The study found that the executives were generally rated highest in the core competencies of business aptitude, responsibility, clarity and internal attunement/self-confidence. However, it was high scores in empathy and trustworthiness, followed by business aptitude, that were found to be most predictive of high ratings for overall leadership effectiveness. According to the study:
What are leaders good at? (ratings highest-to-lowest)
What matters most? (correlation with effectiveness)
"It's revealing that although leaders advance within the organisation by mastering the core business skills," observed BlessingWhite CEO Christopher Rice, "once they're on top they don't necessarily demonstrate the personal characteristics that are needed to connect with colleagues and employees or build loyal relationships, and as a result they fail as leaders."
According to Rice, the leadership gap may not become an issue when times are good. "People will usually follow their superiors who, after all, have the title, credentials or charisma. But getting employees to stay engaged in difficult times amid turmoil and many unknowns. . .that's when empathy becomes crucial. An effective leader has to be able to understand others' feelings and needs, and to generate trust. It's personal qualities such as empathy and trustworthiness that can make all the difference."
BlessingWhite said that of the study subjects, 37% were vice president or above and 45% were directors or managers. Forty percent were between 31-40, 39% 41-50, and 15% over 50. Two-thirds were men and 43% hold an advanced degree. Feedback was provided by 7,924 individuals.
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