Is Empathy Bad or Good for Leaders?

At the heart of my pursuits–personal and professional–I’m constantly striving for improvement. I never settle and am constantly seeking to find an edge to lead to greater effectiveness and efficiency. To many others, this seems unnecessary and tiring. My wife often asks me, “why don’t you just enjoy things as they are?” She doesn’t mean ill-will; but she sees me always stressing to attain better outcomes than they already are.

As a school leader, the pressure I put on myself is likely greater than that of those I serve. Every decision, every task I make is self-scrutinized. This relentless approach to over-analyze my decision-making is honestly exhausting. But, I don’t fret about it because I see it as my duty.

Perhaps the area that I invest the greatest energy of continuous improvement is in the area of “how I think.” Humans are irrational and subject to so many variables that can cloud how we think, feel, and react.

The current book I’m reading is titled, “The Mind of the Leader: How to Lead Yourself, Your People, and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results” by Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter. Put bluntly, this is not just “any-other” leadership and management book. This has been an awesome self-journey to exploring more of how leaders think, as well as how to overcome potential barriers and counterproductive approaches.

The premise is simple–take care of yourself so you can take care of others. But, this book dives into how a leader thinks of him/herself and how it relates to colleagues and the environments in which they serve.

During my daily routine of early-morning reading, I had one of those rare (yet fun) mindbombs thrown at me.

“Empathy can be a poor moral guide…empathy often helps us do what’s right, but it also somtimes motivates us to do what’s wrong” (p. 109).

The authors highlighted a few studies that showcased how, despite best intent of individuals, the decisions they entered into to help others were of clouded judgement. In some cases, the outcomes may have helped the one most in need, while negatively affecting larger groups of people.

This had a profound realization on me as I reflected on my own work and experience with others. Educators “wear their hearts on their sleeve” and are extremely mission- and purpose-driven. But, I’ve also long believed that educators can become too absorbed in their constant quest to help others in episodic experiences. Rather than make decisions on a more macro-level, educators tend to want to solve a situation, quickly. Many of my collegues are addressing situations that they want to resolve, immediatley. This leads to potentially seeking solutions that are a “one-off.” They help the one person, then and there. But, perhaps the decision is counter-productive in the larger scheme.

And, let’s not forget the risk of burnout and fatigue this can cause on educators.

The Journal of Individual Differences recently published a study that suggests mothers with higher levels of emotional intelligence experience parental burnout quicker.

Empathy is a critical trait that effective leaders must possess. However, it is necessary to manage and curtail one’s empathy to create decisions that are sound, balanced, and mindful.

Leaders must be able to understand how others are impacted, but through questioning and joint-exploration through matters, solutions can be reached that are sustainable and responsive.

“Rather than taking on others’ emotions and problems, with compassion you can help them diffuse the issues and move on” (p. 113).

This approach is different than assuming a fully empathetic approach. By engaging in a more mindful leadership approach to problem-solving, an empathetic approach could be taken while helping another person, through compassion, work through the matter. The solution is intended to help the individual in need, while doing so in a manageable and sustainable manner within the greater organization.

Paul Bloom encourages leaders to utilize rational compassion. Bloom suggests that people can engage in effective decision-making while also being compassionate to those in need. This better ensures that a leader doesn’t make a biased, or overly empathetic, decision while showing care for somebody else.

And, ultimately, this leads to a stronger and healthier relationships and work environments for all.

“When we manage our own emotions and manage to resonate with those we lead, we enhance connections and engagement” (p. 114).


Bayot, Marie & Roskam, Isabelle & Gallée, Laura & Mikolajczak, Moïra. (2020). When emotional intelligence backfires: Interactions between intra-and interpersonal emotional competencies in the case of parental burnout Forthcoming in Journal of Individual Differences.


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