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Linking Theory + Practice: Empathy

With so much volatility and uncertainty these days, new research shows the importance versatility and empathy in leadership.


An illustration of a hand reaching over a gap between two people.


Leadership for a Post-Pandemic World:
Versatility and the Special Case for Empathy

There has been much speculation that leadership has fundamentally changed in recent years. The implications are significant for human resource professionals responsible for recruiting, building and developing their company's leadership talent. Do we need a different type of leadership to succeed in a post-pandemic world? If so, how does the new success profile differ from years past?

To answer these questions, it is helpful to step back and consider why organizations need leaders—the functions of leadership—and whether, and in what ways, these have changed. At the core, organizations require leadership to make decisions and take action to align the internal operating environment, capabilities and people with changing external threats and opportunities. And this often depends on reconciling competing, even paradoxical, demands.1

For instance, leadership is responsible for producing results and motivating employees—the classic distinction between task orientation and people orientation. Leaders are also required to balance performance in the near term with positioning the organization to be competitive in the future. And it takes leadership to drive change and innovation to maintain relevance amid fickle customer preferences and competitor moves, yet also to establish stability and continuity for efficient, reliable execution.

Tensions and trade-offs like these make leadership a balancing act. Indeed, the HR thought leader Dave Ulrich recently said that the ability to manage paradoxes is the most important leadership competency today.2 His claim is supported by a new McKinsey study of over 1,800 companies across industries in 15 countries that found a mere 9 percent were performance-driven and also human capital-focused.3

Moreover, these companies, referred to as "People and Performance Winners," did much better than their primarily performance-focused and primarily people-focused rivals on a range of outcomes including profitability (and consistency over time), resilience (defined as less performance loss due to disruptions) and retention. This was the case from 2010 to 2019 and the differences were even more pronounced since the COVID-19 outbreak.

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Versatile Leaders For a Volatile World

These findings suggest that an overarching capability that distinguishes truly outstanding leaders is the ability to focus on paradoxical goals and achieve both. We call this "master capability" versatility—the ability to read and respond to change with a wide repertoire of complementary skills, behaviors and perspectives.4 Versatile leaders are equipped with a "both/and" mindset geared to optimizing conflicting priorities (rather than maximizing one at the expense of the other) and a broad, balanced and flexible range of competencies and behaviors.

Versatility has become a leadership imperative in times of uncertainty and paradox, which characterizes our post-pandemic world. The decided advantage of versatile leaders during sudden jolts and disruptions that accelerate the collision of competing demands is shown in research conducted over the past three years.

The studies measured versatility with the Leadership Versatility Index,5 which uses the 360 method of gathering ratings from leaders' co-workers but with a unique scale that allows them to distinguish degrees of too little, the right amount or too much of each behavior. The items are constructed in pairs, like yin and yang, to measure both forceful and enabling dimensions of interpersonal behavior for influencing others and both strategic and operational dimensions of guiding the organization (see Figure 1).

Versatility is calculated as the extent to which leaders balance opposing and complementary behaviors—that is, rated "the right amount" on both forceful and enabling as well as on both strategic and operational. To the degree that leaders are rated as using some behaviors too much and others too little, they score lower on versatility.

The first study6 compared the effects of leader versatility in 2019 to those during the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic (April through June 2020). The results showed that while versatile leadership was significantly correlated with employee engagement, team agility, business unit productivity and overall effectiveness pre-pandemic, it was even more strongly related to these outcomes during the pandemonium of the outbreak. In those first months of the pandemic, versatile leaders were best able to help their people and teams regroup, refocus and continue to produce, whereas leaders who lacked versatility were overwhelmed by the sudden chaos and their teams struggled.

A follow-up study7 examined how the heightened role of versatility unfolded over the next two years. The correlations between versatile leadership and outcomes saw a sizable bump during the first year of the pandemic that persisted past the initial outbreak. Over the next year and a half, the correlations eased up a bit but remained stronger than in the "before times."

Over the past 25 years, versatility has become more important in determining which organizations thrive versus those which merely hang on—or fall behind. For instance, Figure 2 shows how much variability in overall leadership effectiveness has been a function of versatility over time. As the world has gotten more complex, uncertain and volatile, versatility has become an even more central defining feature of effective leadership.

This leads to our conclusion that versatility is more than just another competency; rather, it is a meta-competency for leading through disruptive change, crisis and paradox.8 As the world careens toward the next normal, with new technologies, redrawn supply chains, novel organizational structures, fluctuating work arrangements and significant changes in employee attitudes and expectations, we believe that organizations with versatile leadership will be in the best position to navigate the shifting landscape.

This perspective is grounded in our independent conclusions from advising executives and studying leadership around the world for well over two decades each: leadership is leadership is leadership. Across cultures, time and place, the same behaviors constitute effective leadership:

  • Articulate an inspiring vision.
  • Align people.
  • Set expectations.
  • Marshal resources.
  • Connect the dots from individual work to organizational mission.
  • Build trust and teamwork.
  • Empower others.
  • Involve and develop people.
  • Follow up and through.
  • Make the tough decisions.
  • Hold people accountable.
  • Inspire them to go above and beyond.
  • And deliver results.

Even though this long list may be incomplete, it illustrates the point about versatility. Leading is difficult because it involves so many disparate, and seemingly mutually exclusive, competencies and behaviors. Those multicapable, balanced and versatile leaders are the ones to bet on for leading your organization through the next disruption, be it a crisis, industry game changer or labor economics that give employees more voice and choice. Versatile leaders have the range and flexibility to adapt while getting great results and maintaining an engaging culture as well as managing through short-term challenges and building for the future.

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The Post-Pandemic Popularity of Empathy

Since the pandemic, there has been a deluge of books, blogs, articles, videos and advice extolling the virtues of empathetic leadership. And it appears that organizations are listening. A McKinsey9 survey comparing changes from 2019 to 2021 found that the percentage of large companies that are prioritizing empathy nearly doubled after 2020. Leaders themselves have gotten the memo: a recent DDI survey10 asked over 13,000 managers and executives from more than 1,500 organizations around the world to describe great leadership in their own words. Across industries and countries, empathy was the most common attribute.

Empathy is even gaining currency in the dog-eat-dog world of investment banking and private equity. Apollo Global Management's head of human capital, Matt Breitfelder, was recently quoted as saying, "On the most fundamental level, leadership is about empathy, and understanding what that particular person needs to unlock their full potential and performance. The more we focus on this in our industry, the more successful we will be." 11

The enthusiasm for empathy is understandable. The psyche of the workforce has been battered by a confluence of stressors, including COVID-19 and its exhausting disruptions to the routines of daily life, the social isolation of lockdowns, work-from-home/hybrid arrangements, social unrest and rising inflation and its disproportionate financial pressure on workers.

At the same time, the labor economy shifted further to a seller's market. For much of the past year, there were two open jobs for every job seeker in the United States.12 Further, new phrases, from the "Great Resignation" to the "Great Awakening" and "quiet quitting," reflect a significant reexamination of employees' relationships with work, with many reducing their career ambitions and deprioritizing the role of work in their lives.

An exhausted, angry, worried and lonely workforce that is stressed out, has more job options and places less importance on work is more likely to be responsive to leadership that is empathetic to their concerns. Put another way, this workforce is more likely to be severely alienated by a lack of empathetic leadership. But where is the evidence that leaders are demonstrating greater empathy—or that an uptick in empathetic leadership is producing greater engagement and better results?

Kaiser Leadership Solutions is currently working on a project to answer these questions using data from over 5,000 upper-level managers and executives in a range of industries and (largely Western) companies gathered since 2019. Initial results show that more managers are rated by their people as demonstrating more empathy now compared to pre-pandemic. Six percent fewer leaders were rated as demonstrating "too little" empathy in 2022 compared to 2019 (35 percent now compared to 41 percent then). Proportionately more leaders are rated as showing the "right amount" of empathy now (57 percent vs 52 percent). And slightly more are rated as demonstrating "too much" empathy (8% vs 7%). This is not a huge sea change, but it is statistically significant and represents a reliable increase in empathetic leadership in just three years.

The more compelling evidence is the changing relationships between the empathetic behavior of leaders and outcomes like employee engagement, productivity and overall effectiveness. For instance, the correlation with engagement shot up from .30 to .46 from 2019 to 2020 then settled a bit to .36 in 2021 through 2022, which is significantly higher than in 2019. But the form of the relationships has also changed. As the pandemic raged in 2020, the cost of "too little" empathy in terms of lower engagement and productivity became steeper and this effect continued through the 2021 and 2022 data.

The data show two important things. First, empathetic leadership is indeed on the rise. Second, empathy is, in fact, playing a stronger role in effective post-pandemic leadership. Leaders who lack empathy have an even greater depressing effect on engagement and productivity, and leaders who demonstrate an optimal degree of empathy have an even greater positive impact. We take this as evidence in support of the popular belief that empathy matters more today.

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Forceful Leadership vs. Empathetic Leadership

Conceiving of versatility as a "master capability" challenges leaders to find the middle path or golden mean between the extremes of deficiency and excess based on context. Any leadership virtue13 or capability, including empathy, can be taken too far. The companion to empathetic leadership is the part of forceful leadership where leaders convey a sense of urgency and push people hard for results.

The percentage of leaders rated as striking a balance on both behaviors (the "right amount" on both empathy and pushing hard for performance) increased from 28 percent in 2019 to 33 percent in 2022.

It turns out that the most empathetic leaders are not the most effective. Rather, those leaders who get the balance right between showing empathy and pushing people hard are, hands down, the most effective (see Figure 3). This makes the case for leadership that has a cool head and a warm heart, is firm but fair, and demonstrates tough love.

A Final Cautionary Note

Fads and fashions come and go in leadership, and it seems that every couple of years the pendulum swings to a new buzzword concept. The danger is in the single-minded obsession with the shiny new object—especially when it blinds us to an opposing but complementary aspect of leadership that gets overlooked.

As you consider the kinds of leaders and leadership behaviors your organization needs now and into the future, we advise this dual-perspective way of considering the options: For every "must-have" competency or behavior, take a moment to consider opposing but complementary behaviors.

We believe that, for the most part, the same set of behaviors will continue to be relevant in the next normal—but some may warrant greater emphasis than others as circumstances change. This is plainly evident in the case of empathy. However, empathy alone is not the defining attribute of effective post-pandemic leadership. Rather, the ability to balance empathy with pushing hard for results is what makes the difference. It takes such versatility to create both an engaging culture that people want to be a part of and a winning organization that can outperform the competition.

In the end, the overarching capability that distinguishes truly outstanding leaders is the ability to focus on paradoxical goals and achieve both. Leading with a "both/and" rather than an "either/or" mindset that optimizes conflicting priorities and competing values is key. With so much volatility and uncertainty, balanced versatility has become the leadership imperative for the post-pandemic world.


Robert B. Kaiser is president at Kaiser Leadership Solutions and former editor-in-chief of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice & Research. Rob has served as partner at Kaplan DeVries and a research scientist for the Center for Creative Leadership, focusing on executive leadership assessment and development. He can be reached at rob@kaiserleadership.com.

Bradley A. Winn is a Leadership & Strategy Practice Professor and Executive MBA Director in the Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University. Brad serves as a Senior Editor for People + Strategy and is the principal of Winn Consulting Solutions. He can be reached at brad.winn@usu.edu.


References

1 Quinn, R., Beyond rational management: Mastering the paradoxes and competing demands of high performance, Jossey-Bass, 1988.
2 Ulrich, D. and W. Brockbank, “Leaders as Paradox Navigators,” The RBL Group, 2019.
4 Kaiser, R.B., “The Best Leaders Are Versatile Ones,” Harvard Business Review, March 2020.
5 The Leadership Versatility Index, Kaiser Leadership Solutions. 
6 Kaiser, R.B., “Leading in an unprecedented global crisis: The heightened importance of versatility,” Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 72(3), 2020.
7 Kaiser, R.B., Respecting the Tension and Tradeoffs That Make Leadership a Balancing Act. Society for Industrial-Organizational Psychology Leading Edge Consortium (October 2022).
8 Kaiser, R.B., R.A. Sherman and R. Hogan, "It Takes Versatility to Lead in a Volatile World." Harvard Business Review, March 2023.
11 Bippart, G., “Apollo’s Global HR Head on Bringing Talent Management Down to Earth,” Private Funds CFO 2023 Report.
12 “Number of unemployed persons per job opening, March 2022,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 2022.
13 Bright, D., B. Winn and J. Kanov, “Reconsidering virtue: Differences of perspective in virtue ethics and the positive social sciences.” Journal of Business Ethics, 119(4), 2014.

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