Leading With Empathy and Authenticity
By: Michael Panarella, Vice President, Client Services
Effective management is one of the hardest skills to teach because there is little agreement on precisely what makes someone a successful leader. Pretty unfortunate, considering the enormous difference between a strong manager and a weak one.
Like many people, I’ve witnessed excellent leadership as well as shockingly poor management skills. Here’s what I’ve learned: the best managers demonstrate empathy and authenticity, not exactly what the current generation of execs was taught in B-school.
What I Learned from a Bad Manager
Early in my career, I worked for an extremely difficult boss who had a few decades of experience on me.
He ruled with an iron fist and arrived from a larger company with the attitude that everything we were doing was broken. He sewed infighting among his staff; sometimes I was the winner and sometimes the loser in these uncomfortable matches.
Almost everyone feared him, and no one wanted to work for him.
Over time, I noticed that in one-on-one conversations, he would put his guard down, tell you about his life and ask about yours. He came across as a genuinely caring person. I realized the iron fist wasn’t his authentic self. Finally, I worked up the nerve to tell him what I thought, that he needed to be himself as a leader. Yes, people get work done here, I told him, but no one is happy.
He told me he was too old to change, even though he acknowledged the persona wasn’t real. But eventually, as more of his team members left, he was fired; the impact of his authoritarian rule was finally recognized as disruptive.
So why do some leaders think they have to be tyrants? Insecurity, no doubt, but also, sometimes, success, at least the temporary variety. Fear can work because it is a powerful motivator; where fear fails is over the long term because it’s unsustainable.
While working for this difficult boss, I noticed I was becoming insecure and more aggressive, following his lead. I became pretty bitter and realized I didn’t want to become like him.
After that realization, I gradually began to cultivate authenticity and empathy. If you’re a naturally caring person, and most of us humans are, it’s so much easier to be yourself.
You can’t present yourself as someone who never makes mistakes. You have to be just as vocal about being wrong as you are about being right. Authenticity is telling the truth, no matter where it leads. You will have to be vulnerable sometimes, but that is the path to success.
What I Learned from Great Managers
Luckily, I’ve also had some great mentors during my career.
One of my most enduring lessons came from observing a leader at the pinnacle of the organization taking an interest in everyone, including me when I was in my early 20s and just starting out. I had a lot of ideas, as twenty-somethings tend to have, but Myk took the time to encourage me to voice my opinions and he made me feel valued. He encouraged everyone to share their ideas even if they were unrelated to their precise role. Employees were people, not just job titles.
Myk projected genuine empathy, and everything he touched was a success. Everyone wanted to work for him. His authenticity wasn’t just about praise. He would also be the first one to call you out if you were being a jerk. I trusted him and felt understood. I wanted to work twice as hard for such an incredible leader.
How To Handle a Poor Manager
Working for a difficult boss can make anyone miserable. All you can do is try to react with the same empathy and authenticity we all deserve.
Take a step back and think about your manager’s interests: What are they looking for and what is making them frustrated?
With the tough manager I described, I realized over time that he couldn’t articulate what he wanted. Then, I recognized the same pattern recently with a company I was helping with strategy. A newer manager was trying to become more innovative, but her staff was confused, and the organization had become dysfunctional. Digging deeper, the manager was telling her staff the direction she wanted to go in, but they weren’t hearing her. I told them to take a step back, listen to the goals, and try to find their own role in making those goals happen.
Again, empathy and authenticity were needed. You can’t change anyone else’s behavior, but you can change how you react to it. The staff needed to feel comfortable saying they didn’t get it, and the manager needed to seek a different way to communicate.
Empathy can go a long way when managing up with a tough boss. Think about what will make your manager look good – what does your boss’s boss want to see? I’ve been in situations where a manager was sabotaging themselves without realizing it. At that point, put yourself in their shoes, think about times you’ve felt insecure, times you were in over your head. That will help you feel less anger. Brainstorm what might have helped you in those difficult situations and try to give that back to your manager.
Managing In a New World
The best advice I’ve heard — and that I always try to pay forward — is to remember the ways you’ve felt appreciated and supported in a job and the ways you’ve felt undermined or undervalued in a role, and then try to replicate the positive approach. Thank you to Myk for that.
I learned these lessons before the pandemic, but they feel even more relevant now. With employees trying to work from home, while navigating the needs of a spouse and maybe children, we could all use a little more empathy and authenticity.
This article was first published on Forbes.com. To read the original article, click here.