Being ‘empathetic’ is such an obvious foundation of effective leadership that you might assume that there would be little need to highlight its importance today. Yet, even though it is well established that this characteristic adds greatly to a leader’s ability to engage others, some ‘leaders’ seem clueless as to where other people are coming from, or show a complete lack of concern for their employees. This is not an exaggeration and, worse still, I have frequently watched in shock at how some of them have a really perverted sense of how to get the best out of their employees. I thought I had seen it all in this regard until I recently came across the following incident reported in the Salt Lake City Tribune which is summarized here:

Apparently one employee working for a motivational coaching business has filed a law suit claiming that his former supervisor used “waterboarding” on him in front of his colleagues to make a point about how hard he expected them all to work. The suit claims that this particular boss routinely humiliated employees by drawing fake mustaches on them, pulling their chairs from under them and even slamming a paddle down on their desks.

On one occasion, the boss asked for volunteers for an unspecified new motivational exercise, which the employee says he volunteered for in order to prove his loyalty and commitment to the business. The employee alleged that the boss then led him and his colleagues to an exterior location on a hill near the office and told him to lie on the ground, with his head facing downhill. He claims the boss then ordered his colleagues to hold him down, as he proceeded to pour a gallon of water over his face and nose whilst he struggled to breathe for some time. The employee contends he was severely traumatized by the incident. The lawsuit also states that, at the end of this exercise, his boss told everyone in attendance that they should work as hard at making sales, as this particular employee had worked to breathe!

The company denies the claim and says that although an incident did occur, it was somewhat exaggerated. Oh well, that’s ok then, I guess.

For sure, this is an extreme example – highlighted for effect – and unlike this slightly psycho boss, most leaders don’t need to be told that people probably won’t take too kindly to being water-boarded under any circumstances. That is partially because they are sane, but I find it has more to do with the fact that they have an innate ability to be aware of, and sensitive to, the emotions and feelings of others. When real leaders say things like ‘I understand where you are coming from’, they really mean it and Bob Galvin, former CEO of Motorola, got it right about the importance of empathy when referring to his father, the founder of the company:

‘Dad once looked down at the assembly line of women and thought; ‘These are all like my own mom-they have kids, homes to take care of, people who need them’  It motivated him to work hard because he saw his own mom in all of them. That’s how it all begins-with respect and empathy.”

Having this ability to empathize with others not only allows the best leaders to strengthen their ties with people, but it also helps them to understand what style of leadership will work best in any given situation. Closely in tune with human nature, they are far more effective because of that fact, and have a natural tendency to build positive relationships with others. The most successful leaders are team orientated by nature, thinking in terms of teams and not just groups of people, with the result that they show a real concern for their employees’ levels of motivation; monitoring it, noticing if it is out of sync, finding out why and dealing with any blockages. That does not mean that they are soft touches, though, because they can quickly tell when someone is trying to pull a fast one too.

 Unfortunately, studies have shown time and time again that certain ‘leaders’ take their lack of people skills to the extreme – occasionally showing an absence of empathy comparable to that seen in the worst sociopaths. Monty Burns, that boss from hell in The Simpsons, used to welcome his employees to the start of a new week with such memorable quotes as, ‘Monday morning. . .time to pay for your two days of debauchery, you hungover drones.’ No doubt for a couple of the anti-leaders that I have had the misfortune to run into, this represents a pretty accurate description of how they view their people.



Enda Larkin has over 25 years experience in the hotel industry having held a number of senior management positions in Ireland, UK and the US.In 1994 he founded HTC Consulting, a Geneva based firm, which specialises in working with enterprises in hospitality and tourism. Since that time, he has led numerous consulting projects for public and private sector clients throughout Europe and the Middle East.He is author of Ready to Lead? (Pearson/Prentice Hall 2007), How to Run a Great Hotel (How to Books 2009) which expands on the themes highlighted in this article, ‘Quick Win’ Leadership (Oak Tree Press 2010) and The Impostor Leaders which is due to be published in 2011. He may be contacted via or at info@htc-consult.comRead his Blog at
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