Leadership: Empathy from Starbucks

Who would have thought one could look to Starbucks for a power tool to improve leadership? Yet it was Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, who summed up the importance of empathy in the workplace in his book, “Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul”:

Don’t embrace the status quo. Find new ways to see. Never expect a silver bullet. Get your hands dirty. Listen with empathy and over-communicate with transparency. Tell your story, refusing to let others define you. Use authentic experiences to inspire.” 

Why was empathy so important to Schultz?  He recognized that leadership was not about getting people to work more productively to improve the “bottom line” for the enterprise.  He knew that leadership was primarily about caring for the people.  When a leader cares for the team, the team will produce.

Few things express such heartfelt care for others as genuine empathy.  When one reads of the greatest leaders in history, the ones known for amazing human leadership, one will find the common theme of empathy.  Shackleton employed it daily and his expedition team members over-performed in response.  It is for this that he is remembered above all other polar explorers.  Eisenhower was known for it and was well-respected and well-served by his staff and soldiers.

Empathy is understanding other people’s emotions and needs and communicating that understanding effectively.  Impactful leaders provide an environment in which their team members feel respected, their point of view acknowledged, and experiences and emotions are recognized and considered. Empathy drives engagement: without it, peak performance in the enterprise will not be realized.

Below are some additional empathy tips you can employ today in your daily leadership.

  • Lead by listening “between the lines.”  Be alert to the emotional experiences that drive the speaker’s words.  It is their emotional needs being recognized, acknowledged, and met that will make team members more secure in their work.
  • Lead with self-awareness.  Listen to yourself with a critical ear.  Are your responses about you and your opinions, or do they encourage the other to speak from the heart about their experiences?  Are you listening deeply, and drawing out the emotional meaning in the other person?
  • Lead with the best motivation.  The best motivation is that which empowers and encourages the team members to succeed.  There is no room in leadership for seeking self-success.  Empathy is one of the catalysts of great motivation. 
  • Lead with self-regulation.  Let self-awareness assist you to reduce and hopefully eliminate any self-motivation or self-promotion from your interactions with others.  Seek out others, to hear them and to take their words and feelings to heart.  Let every conversation promote the interests of the other person.  Remember, the leader gains the most when the individuals being led gain more than the leader.

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