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Leadership + Business

New Research Reveals "Practical Empathy" as Key to Great Leadership

by Jenny Wiley

SAN FRANCISCO, June 10, 2014 /PRNewswire/ -- Examining thousands of open-text comments about good leaders and great leaders, a new study identifies key themes of exceptional leadership; at the core is a relationship that engages and supports team members.

Lead author, Joshua Freedman, explains: "In business, 'empathy' is often seen as 'soft,' but the research makes it clear that exceptional leaders are highly empathic – as well as hard-headed.  This blend of head+heart is key to performance today." Freedman is CEO of Six Seconds, a global organization working toward supporting one billion people to practice the skills of emotional intelligence.

The study, entitled, ”Talking About Great Leaders: Creating Conditions for Performance,“ uses a process of textual analysis to identify themes in comments about "high performing leaders" compared to "highest performing leaders." The comments, from supervisors, colleagues, and subordinates, highlight a common theme: Focus on others.

However, there are subtle distinctions between the good and great leaders.

Massimiliano Ghini, Director of the Center for Innovative Management, and a business professor at Alma Graduate School (Italy), explains:  "The best leaders go deeper. They are more genuine, and, at the same time, perceived to be more proactive and agile in addressing issues. They create a climate for performance by being both practical and empathic."

The report explains that focus on people comes first, "One clear theme is that these leaders are focused on people, not tasks. They are creating a context – and the top leaders are especially focused here." Among the textual comments about highest performers, 62% explicitly mention the importance of emotions.

According to the research, however, "good feeling" isn't enough. Strong leaders are also good managers: "Many of the comments are about being focused on the organization, clients, and processes."

Freedman: "The best leaders demonstrate a kind of 'tough empathy.' They deal with issues with great emotional intelligence, making it possible for their people to stay focused on priorities." Freedman explains this is central to the concept of emotional intelligence, or, in his words, "Being smarter with feelings." In a recent TEDx on emotional intelligence, Freedman explains these learnable, measurable skills appear to be increasingly important as workplaces become more complex with rapid change, cross cultural dynamics, and multiple generations.



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