Attributes of Leadership – Sympathy and Understanding

Successful leaders must be in sympathy with their followers. Moreover, they must understand them and their problems – Napoleon Hill

Sympathy and understanding[This is the eighth in a series exploring the attributes of leadership outlined by Napoleon Hill]

Sympathy is a powerful emotion. It allows us to feel for another. Most often, we use it when a person experiences hardships. The entire nation felt sympathy for New York City after the attacks of 9/11, as well as for Aurora, CO when the cinema shootings occurred. More recently, our hearts reached out to Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight, Gina DeJesus, and their families for the ordeal they endured for the past decade (that thankfully ended this week). On the other hand, all across the country felt joy and a sense of accomplishment, along with somber reflection, as workers installed the steel spire atop 1 World Trade center yesterday (May 10, 2013). The tallest building in the country (and the western hemisphere) is now a monument to the lives lost that fateful day in 2001, and is a symbol of rebirth.

Sympathy, when combined with understanding, allows you to effectively lead. What are these two qualities, and how do they combine in a leader with positive effect? How can you more fully develop these qualities? Finally, are there pitfalls to avoid as you seek to display these qualities in your life?

Sympathy and Understanding Defined has the following as primary definitions of the word sympathy:

  1. harmony of or agreement in feeling, as between persons or on the part of one person with respect to another.
  2. the harmony of feeling naturally existing between persons of like tastes or opinion or of congenial dispositions.
  3. the fact or power of sharing the feelings of another, especially in sorrow or trouble; fellow feeling, compassion, or commiseration.

Sympathy allows you to feel for others. We may not relate to what they’re experiencing, but we share emotions with them, whether of joy or sorrow.

Understanding, at least in the context of this discussion, involves both knowledge of the facts and an appreciation of their significance. As it relates to leadership, it allows one to stand with those they lead in the sense of relating to their challenges, not simply having knowledge those challenges exist.

Taken together, you could rightly say they allow a leader to feel empathy. When combined, you not only feel for the person, but you understand their experience, allowing you to feel what they’re going through along with them.

Acquiring Sympathy and Understanding

Sympathy and understanding can (and should) move us to action that is beneficial and uplifting. Granted, it’s not always possible to directly affect those whose experiences tug at our hearts. In the examples above, you may not know someone directly affected by 9/11, or the women victimized by the kidnappings and abuse in Ohio. Yet even in those cases, we can take action that indirectly promotes the greater good. For most leaders, however, you have plenty of opportunity to show sympathy and understanding “at home,” so to speak, with those you have contact with regularly. How can you make the most of those opportunities?

The first step starts with developing compassion, described as “sympathy in action.” Sadly, compassion is lacking in this world. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that people don’t acknowledge injustice, and feel a measure of indignation. When we watch the evening news, the average person shakes his or her head and wonders why people are so cruel, insensitive, unethical, etc. We feel bad about what we see. Yet how often does it motivate us to do something?

That’s probably not a fair example. After all, as I’ve noted above, we don’t personally know most of the people reported on in the news. So, let’s make this personal. Think about the people at work, at school, where you worship, or on your children’s’ teams. How many of them are facing challenges? Do you know? If not, then that’s the first step in developing sympathy and understanding, leading to demonstrating compassion. Take time to learn about those with whom you work, play, and regularly associate. This is especially important if they look to you as a leader. Have short, meaningful conversations with them. Open ended discussions born of genuine interest in others reveal amazing results. You’ll learn things about the people around you that will often surprise you. This knowledge leads to sympathetic feelings. Further, it helps you relate to the experiences of your associates, allowing you to feel with them. It’s this fellow-feeling that inspires action (1 Peter 3:8).

Pitfalls to Avoid


Avoid these pitfalls while developing sympathy & understanding

Developing sympathy coupled with understanding is vital to leadership. As noted above, when we combine these two qualities, we’re said to develop empathy. While empathy is important, you must avoid commiserating in a negative sense. When people experience challenges, it’s easy for them to see only the negative, and to have feelings of helplessness and worthlessness. Those are emotions with which you should never connect. Yes, the challenges exist, and yes, they create difficulties. But your goal is to render comfort and aid, not make them feel as though their world is crashing down around their ears. So, while you express sympathy in a spirit of understanding, never allow your expressions to devolve into a pity party. That does no one any good.

Another caution is against developing the Comforter style of leadership. What do I mean? While good leadership provides true comforter, the leadership style defined as “the Comforter” tries to appease others without ever addressing the issues at hand. The Comforter leader coddles others instead of promoting the development of leadership skills. No, I’m not saying it’s wrong to provide aid and comfort in extreme circumstances. I am saying that deflecting an issue in an attempt to make someone “feel better” is misguided at best, and often has far-reaching negative consequences. David Byrd discusses this in his blog post, Effective Leaders Use the Most Effective Style of Leadership. He notes that according to research conducted by Jay Hall, PhD., the Comforter style of leadership is only 5% effective. That’s right, just 5%! The most effective style of leadership, the Developer, is 92% effective. The numbers speak for themselves.

Sympathy and understanding are qualities vital to leaders. Thankfully, although these qualities are on the decline in our world, we can cultivate them. By taking time to learn about those around us, allowing that knowledge to fuel our compassion, and by avoiding the traps of negative commiseration and providing false comfort, we can become more effective and successful leaders.

What’s your greatest challenge in displaying the qualities of sympathy and empathy? What one thing can you do to demonstrate them more fully? Share your thoughts in the Comments below.


4 thoughts on “Attributes of Leadership – Sympathy and Understanding

  1. Pingback: Attributes of Leadership – Mastery of Detail | Back-Office Bulletin

  2. Pingback: Attributes of Leadership – Willingness to Assume Full Responsibility | Back-Office Bulletin

  3. Pingback: Attributes of Leadership – Cooperation | Back-Office Bulletin

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