Leadership Done Right: Yes Elon, Empathy Works
Some conversations stay with me. It could be something about the subject, the wisdom of the person I’m talking to, or the timeliness of the discussion. And sometimes, a random event triggers my recall. Case in point: The world recently watched a sad spectacle, as half of Twitter’s 7,500 employees lost their jobs when new owner Elon Musk stepped into his CEO role and promptly went on a firing spree. Apparently, he hadn’t received the memo from other successful executives that empathy works as a leadership style.
Twitter is obviously grappling with numerous business issues. But it’s stunning to think this company’s future depends on a singular person in a position of great power who simply decided to slice the workforce in half. And that was only his first week on the job.
Why Empathy Works
This behavior reminds me of a #WorkTrends podcast discussion I had with Gary DePaul, a brilliant leadership consultant, researcher, and author. We spoke in June 2021 — more than a year into the pandemic — when everyone was grappling with workplace challenges. The Great Resignation was gaining steam, and leaders were scrambling to redefine work life and organizational culture in ways that would keep talent onboard.
Over the course of our conversation, Gary explained what makes leaders effective in the long run. Among the qualities that give leaders staying power is (you guessed it) empathy. Seems like the opposite of Elon Musk’s approach, doesn’t it?
Whatever you think of his business acumen, Elon has never been an empathetic leader. It doesn’t seem to be one of his goals, to put it mildly.
This posture is already damaging his relationships with employees. And it doesn’t seem to be garnering trust among Twitter’s business partners, either.
Days into this acquisition, major advertisers like GM decided to put their Twitter budgets on hold and marketing strategists began advising clients to spend elsewhere. It seems Elon’s lack of empathy is already costing him dearly.
Empathy Works Because it Builds Common Ground
Will an empathy void ultimately matter to the success of this $44 billion deal? It probably depends on your view of the people/profits equation.
In our podcast interview, Gary made it clear where he stands, and I’m inclined to agree. Empathy is absolutely crucial for leadership. It’s also a necessary through-line for every organizational tier. Whatever your title, you won’t win the hearts, minds, or cooperation of your team members unless you make a genuine effort to connect with them on a human level.
Gary said that openly acknowledging your weaknesses as well as your strengths is a powerful way to break the ice. It doesn’t need to be complicated. For instance, at your next Zoom meeting, when you ask everyone to introduce themselves by sharing a bit of personal information, don’t skip yourself.
Empathy Also Builds Alignment
Self-awareness leads to humility, which in turn, leads to empathy. When you honor others’ right to be at the table, you can expect a better response from them. That’s the reason why empathy works.
Think about it. When you make an effort to connect with others, pay attention to them, and factor their input into your decisions, others will be drawn toward you.
But when your actions make it clear that your business revolves around you, why would your team sign-up for that? When you send a message that says you make decisions in a unilateral, top-down way, you inhibit the free exchange of ideas where engagement and innovation thrive.
No wonder we see phenomena like “quiet quitting” eroding modern work cultures. When people feel like it’s not worth the effort to work hard or go the extra mile, why should employers expect that kind of commitment?
The Elon Musk Twitter story still needs to unfold. But I think we’re already learning some valuable lessons. I believe Gary DePaul would agree.
Authority is best served with warmth. In other words, leaders should be willing to admit they’re going to make mistakes. They should also be willing to admit they’re on a learning curve — particularly when they’ve just taken over a company.
Anyone in charge of a team can and should work on their leadership style and recognize the importance of communicating with different types of people on their terms. (Hint: Maybe email isn’t the best way to deliver life-altering news.)
A Key Takeaway from Gary DePaul
Studying leadership is Gary DePaul’s career passion. When we spoke, his latest book was What the Heck Is Leadership and Why Should I Care? It speaks to these core questions:
- What does it really mean to lead?
- What does this job really require?
Gary’s bottom line: Leadership is a continuous, ongoing vocation. So if you’re heading into the corner office (metaphorically or not), don’t assume you’ve arrived. You’re just getting started.
For more insights on leadership and other work-related topics, explore our #WorkTrends podcast archives. You’ll find a treasure trove of great guests and ideas.
Also, be sure to subscribe to Meghan M. Biro’s LinkedIn newsletter, The Buzz On Work, her personal take on what’s happening at the intersection of people, tech, HR, and work culture.