Let's discuss empathy and authenticity - Kathy Varol

Let’s discuss empathy and authenticity


I was reading a business book last week. One chapter covered 5 different leadership styles. The author mentioned that each of us will feel more natural with certain leadership styles and less natural with others, but ultimately it’s important to learn each style. This enables a leader to be more effective by adjusting their style based on who they are leading.

I’ve seen this advice in countless business books.

Normally I nod my head, mentally match myself to the leadership styles that suit me best, then take a deep breath while making a note of the ones I need to learn if I’m ever going to reach my full potential (while feeling less than).

This time was different.

I couldn’t shake the unsettled feeling the advice gave me.

Maybe it was because the previous chapter was on how to effectively influence others, or the way “empathy” was woven into the need to adjust your leadership style. The cumulative effect made this standard advice land as manipulative and inauthentic.

There is a lot of talk about the importance of both empathy and authenticity in leadership, but there is a missing discussion around the role each plays. Empathy is your ability to hold another person’s emotions and experiences with compassion and understanding. Authenticity is your ability to share yourself. To stand in your truth and share your own emotions and experiences.

Where the conversation gets icky is when you start adding in an objective, like influence.

Once an objective enters the picture, empathy stops being empathy. You’re no longer simply holding space for another person to show up exactly how they are. Instead, you’re using empathy as a means to an end. To figure out how to get the other person to do what you want, or feel what you want. This is not empathy, this is manipulation.

Empathy is being there for another person. It doesn’t have an internal agenda.

Empathy does, however, have natural outcomes. Empathy builds trust and connection between two people. These outcomes are grown in the open—non-agenda’d—space of being.

When it comes to leadership, it’s important to be authentic. This means leading in alignment with who you are, not who you think you’re supposed to be. As multidimensional human beings, how we show up will naturally change in different contexts when we’re being true to ourselves. Authenticity means the point of reference for how we show up is internal, not external.

What if the same advice on leadership was given to zodiac signs? Identify which zodiac sign you are, then learn the traits of all 12 and change how you act based on who you’re talking to. If you’re talking to a Sagittarius, act like a Sagittarius. If you’re talking to a Gemini, act like a Gemini.

This sounds absurd, right?

There is danger in following this advice whether it’s given in the context of leadership, zodiac, or something else. The more you pretend to be something you’re not, the harder it is to remember who you are. The inauthentic patterns you practice shove you into smaller and smaller boxes. Until one day, you realize there’s nothing left of you, just a crushing feeling that you’re not enough.

What the world needs, what business needs, is more leaders leading by example. Bravely showing up as the authentically imperfect humans they are and giving permission to others to do the same.

We need connection, without hidden agendas.

We need more humanness, not more boxes to shove ourselves into.

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