Goodness Report, News

How Should We Define Empathy In Leadership?

December 1, 2021

By Theodore McDarrah, Forbes

Welcome to the dawn of the age of empathetic leadership.

New research claims that empathy is currently the most important leadership skill. With the rise of mental health awareness since the Covid-19 pandemic, leaders who acknowledge this and utilize empathy tend to build stronger, more positive relationships with their team.

One example is a recently released survey by Catalyst, a nonprofit group focused on women in business, which finds that almost 60% of employees were unlikely to think about leaving their jobs if they felt they and their life circumstances have been treated with respect.

Empathy has also been a pressing topic for the Kallion Organization, a nonprofit focused on leadership in the humanities.

Over this past week, Kallion urged its followers to share stories on social media describing how leaders who utilize empathy tend to be the most successful. They stretch beyond the workplace, which gives some background as to why office leaders who employ empathy get more out of their team. It lets the employee know that there is real care in the relationship beyond the employee-employer connection. The return is employees will put real care into his or her work.

There are both empirical and anecdotal reasons as to why incorporating empathy in leadership can be beneficial to leaders and employees. However, empirical research does not first explicitly come to terms with a general definition of empathy. And, given the anecdotal nature of the shared stories, empathy is necessarily understood subjectively in these cases.

For the dialogue of why empathy is so crucial in leadership to continue, there ought to be some sort of declared definition of what empathy is.

Defining Empathy

To be clear, looking for some set definition of empathy—or any other concept—does not mean we are looking to delegitimize it or argue against the claim that empathy in leadership is beneficial. In fact, the opposite is the case.

When Socrates annoys his interlocutors about a definition of Justice in Plato’s Republic, or Virtue in Meno, or Piety in Euthyphro, it is not because Socrates—and by extension Plato—want to disprove the existence of these concepts. It is exactly because Socrates cares so deeply about them, and thus wants those who use the terms to truly understand them.

So, following Socrates, let’s get to a definition of empathy so we can continue the conversation of empathy in leadership with real care and understanding.

To begin our definition, let’s take a look at the etymology of the word ‘empathy.’

Somewhat surprisingly, before the 20th century, ‘empathy’ did not even exist in the English language. Whatever ‘empathy’ means, the word ‘sympathy’ covered it until the psychologist Edward Titchener translated the German ‘einfuhlung’ into what we now understand to be ‘empathy.’ Literally, einfuhlung translates to “feeling into.”


The concept of ‘feeling into’ in the psychological context Titchener understood can be traced back to the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume’s influence spans well beyond the world of philosophy, from his close friend economist Adam Smith to scientist Charles Darwin. Generally, Hume can and is considered to be one of the most important intellectuals to ever speak and write in the English language. The fact that the concept of empathy can be traced back to him should be no surprise.

The way in which Hume was interested in ‘feeling into’ is due to the classic philosophical problem of other minds. Namely, how do we know other minds exist? How can we be sure? Hume’s way to solve this problem is the idea of empathy, or that “the minds of men are mirrors to one another.”

Hume argues that when encountering other people, we can resonate with and recreate those people’s thoughts and emotions. Because of this mirroring, Hume claims other minds exist. So, thanks to empathy, we know that we are not alone.

And here lies our definition of empathy. It is acknowledging that there are other people. To show empathy is to know you are not alone.

This understanding—the realization that you and your neighbors are the same kind of cognizant being—brings us right back to why empathy is so crucial for leadership. It begets respect for other people, allows you to have shared experiences and all the rest of the common understandings of empathy.

Empathy is the Gorilla Glue that holds together our workplaces and political society. Surely, business leaders can do better than our current political class.


Orange County's Creative Communications Agency