"Empathy is the Most Important Leadership Skill according to research."
That's the headline of a recent Forbes article.
In my ten years as an active-duty Marine infantry officer, empathy was not my strong point in the beginning. However, I got much better.
On my second tour in Iraq, I commanded about 150 Marines who lived in leased houses in rural Iraqi villages. We learned that treating Iraqis with respect and dignity and trying to understand their culture and circumstances built the trust that both sides needed to effectively work together against Al Qaeda. The work came down to constantly trying to understand the environment and people, and then building relationships.
Empathy isn’t a “leadership tool” you pick up when needed. It has to emerge from an internal place of true caring and curiosity. I got better as it as I got older (I'm still getting better at it–likely because I'm still getting older :-)
Learning to engage with empathy is a practice. Learning empathic listening starts you on the path to engaging and leading with empathy.
In environments where the stakeholders range from diverse to outright polarized, empathy will be key to bridging the often-invisible common ground in seemingly intractable problems.