This piece is the fourth installment in a six-part series on leadership character by Col. Eric Kail.

Perhaps the most pervasive axiom on the topic of leadership is that leadership is all about people. This simple statement reveals two critical principles of effective leadership. First, leadership is more than accomplishing a goal or mission. Second, seeing as the word “people” is plural, the focus of who benefits from leadership should be on the followers, not the leader.

These truths, in turn, rest upon empathy, one’s capacity to comprehend or experience the emotions of another. Followers view leaders in terms of the personal impact made on the followers’ lives. Unfortunately, many leaders spend all their energy trying to impress others when they could be truly impressive by learning more about those whom they lead.

People decide just how much they will allow you to lead them. Sure, if you are in charge, people will most likely do as you say. But how well they carry out your commands and for how long is their decision, not yours.

Transactional leadership, which relies purely on formal authority, only works for a short time and achieves diminished results. Assuming people will do as you command just because you say so is a cowardly indicator of incompetence. This ultimately cheats the organization by achieving the minimum.

Humility is essential to character-based leadership. Think of a humble leader as one who is selfless, not one who has been punished or put in his or her place. The former is strong enough to get his or her ego out of the way; the latter is most likely too weak to keep hubris from going terribly wrong.

Interestingly, the followers decide how empathetic a leader really is, and this is how the most powerful and effective leaders receive their influence. Leadership, after all, is a relationship. We cannot expect others to go very far with us in a relationship until we reveal who we are and in turn learn who they are in a meaningful manner.

Powerful leaders value their followers as individuals. They are also tolerant, willing to investigate the perceptions and positions of others objectively. Empathetic leaders leverage diversity because of individual differences, not in spite of them. Each person brings unique perceptions, experiences, strengths and challenges to a team. Allowing everyone to contribute to a goal in a meaningful way is far better than marginalizing someone for the sake of an imagined better outcome.

In this way, empathy is far more critical to good leadership than any technical knowledge, skill or ability. You can learn to be more empathetic–but not the way you would memorize answers for a test, rather the way you would internalize knowledge for a lifetime of application. We can all tell when someone is pretending to be interested in us, and others can sense it just as easily when we do the same.

As leaders we must be listening rather than waiting to speak. The brilliant nugget of wisdom on the tip of my tongue is nowhere near as powerful as what the other person is saying. What I cannot wait to say matters to me. What they are saying matters deeply to them. We have two ears that do not close, but only one mouth that easily does.

As you strive to be more empathetic, try not to interrogate people for information about themselves. Instead, focus on increasing your understanding and appreciation of what makes them unique. The next time you have the occasion to recognize someone’s good performance, ask if you can spend an hour with them learning how they do a task so effectively. Every time you have something powerful to say, resist the urge. Instead turn the tables with something as simple as, “Tell me more about yourself.” If you are truly listening, you will be well on the way to increasing your empathy—and the integrity of your leadership character—in the eyes of those you lead.

Col. Eric Kail is an Army field artillery officer who has commanded at the company and battalion levels. He is the course director of military leadership at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He holds a PhD in organizational psychology.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

More in this series:

Introduction to the ‘leadership character’ series

Part one: The role of courage

Part two: The role of integrity

Part three: The role of selflessness

Part four: The role of empathy

Part five: The role of collaboration

Part six: The role of reflection

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