Blog | Empathy Leads the Way


A Look into Leadership Styles and Executive Presence

group of business people walking together down a hallway

In the midst of today’s fast-paced, highly unpredictable business landscape, how do executives lead and manage their team effectively to maximize return? To many, a driving, directive leadership style might come to mind first. While this leadership style drives results in the short term, psychologist Ray Williams has pointed out that this is highly unsustainable in the long run. Leaders who are too obsessed with seeing results might undervalue employee well being and their opinions, thereby this lack of communication creates a dissonance within the team and the company. The solution to counter this discrepancy, and a quality that many leaders overlook, is empathy.

Research conducted by Christina Boedker of the Australian School of Business studied more than 5,600 people in 77 organizations. According to the study, the strongest correlations between leadership qualities and performance is found in empathy and compassion. Bodker explains that empathy facilitates communication, and builds a supportive company culture, but to some empathy may be seen as a weakness when it is thought of as synonyms for compromise and indecisiveness. However, exercising empathy is by no means conforming with others.  Rather empathy is a skill, a way to understand others’ perspectives in context. Furthermore, empathy is an ability to communicate from nonverbal channels and to form trust within the community. A company built on trust ultimately fosters collaboration, poses greater intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for employees and in turn, drives positive results.

Dr. Mark Rittenberg, Distinguished Teaching Fellow at the Haas School of Business, agrees that empathy is the solution to better communication and heightened appreciation of one another in both professional and personal life. In his TED Talk ‘Leadership is Love’, Dr. Rittenberg explains how empathy opens the door to human connection. He gives an example of a directive, almost dictatorial business leader named Gary, who is unwilling to sign purchase orders and to listen to his employees. Upon knowing the discontent and underperformance of his employees, Gary decided to open up and told his personal tragic story. The employees were moved by his story, and their empathies let down his guard. He further reciprocated the empathy and finally started to listen to his employees. The story shows us how empathy is capable of opening lines of communication and thus creating means of mutual appreciation. 

Dr. Rittenberg repeatedly stresses that “Leadership is a choice”. Everyone can be a leader, but a good leader must lead with empathy. Afterall, regardless of the position you hold at your company, you are also playing the role of a colleague. 

“Bringing empathy into relationships results in new levels of understanding and appreciation of one another and results in heightened communication, partnership, and collaboration in both professional and personal life.” - Mark Rittenberg, Distinguished Teaching Fellow at the Haas School of Business

Written by: Annie Chen
UC Berkeley Executive Education Sales & Marketing Intern
UC Berkeley undergraduate student
Williams, R. (2016, August 28). Why We Need More Empathetic and Compassionate Leaders. Retrieved from
Rittenberg, M. (2017, August 3). Leadership is Love: The Power of Human Connections. TEDxCincinnati. Retrieved from 
Boedker C; Cogin J; Langford PH; Meagher K; Sheldon P; Simmons S; Vidgen R; Mouritsen J; Runnalls M, 2011, Culture and Management Practices of High Performing Workplaces in Australia: the High Performing Workplace Index. Australian School of Business. Retrieved from