5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership

Having empathy in a leadership position will allow you to form a connection with your team. When you can establish a true connection with the group you are leading, they will be able to see your humanness, your self-questioning, and your vulnerabilities and think, “You know, if Candy is doing such a great job as a leader, I can too.” I have heard this several times in my life.

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is increasingly recognized as a pivotal leadership trait. In an ever-evolving business landscape, leaders who exhibit genuine empathy are better equipped to connect, inspire, and drive their teams towards success. But how exactly does empathy shape leadership dynamics? How can it be harnessed to foster stronger relationships, improved decision-making, and a more inclusive work environment? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Candy Marcum.

Candy Marcum has been counseling, training, writing, supervising, facilitating and advising people through therapy and social advocacy since 1981. Her passion and enthusiasm in serving the mental health needs of all communities have helped guide her life’s work as a healer. Her tagline is: “Helping People Bring Meaning to Their Lives.”

Candy’s current focus is introducing The Gottman Method to couples in conflict. She also counsels Individuals and serves as a Professional Supervisor for professionals wanting to gain full licensure in Professional Counseling and Marriage and Family Counseling.

A social reform veteran, Candy was one of Dallas’ first professional counselors who worked with the LGBTQ+ community as an out *** herself. She also is a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor and works with multiple compulsive behavior programs.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about empathy, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

The year was 1966, and I was a 15-year-old sophomore in high school in Big Spring, Texas. In the spring of that year, I began a 15-year romantic relationship with an 18-year-old senior…girl. I did not know another single soul who was LGBTQ+. As a matter of fact, those initials were not being used at that time. I had known from a much earlier age that I was attracted to females. I had heard that same-sex attraction was either a form of mental illness or a sin or both. I came from a medical family that was also Irish Catholic. I wasn’t so concerned about the sinfulness of my relationship as much as the mental illness aspect of this relationship. I didn’t feel mentally ill any more than I felt like a sinner.

When I graduated from high school, I knew I wanted to major in psychology so I could understand what same-sex attraction was about. After earning my Master’s Degree in Counseling, I started a private counseling business in Dallas, Texas, that provided Gay Affirming Counseling for LGBTQ+ individuals. By the time I began my practice, same-sex attraction was no longer listed as a mental illness. LGBTQ+ people needed to hear from a professional that being LGBTQ+ was neither wrong nor a mental illness.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Soon after starting my counseling business, we began to hear about a gay men’s disease — AIDS. The AIDS pandemic directly and profoundly impacted me both personally and professionally. I was losing friends, colleagues, and clients to AIDS. The effects of AIDS and my coming out as a *** were the impetus for my social advocacy and leadership development.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

My counseling business was unique in Dallas as the first counseling business with an out *** or gay professional who was willing to treat LGBTQ+ clients without looking for pathology just because they were LGBTQ+.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

1. Authenticity: The willingness and courage to be my authentic *** self.

There were no professional counselors in Dallas who were willing to be openly out. While there were LGBTQ+ professional counselors, they were not willing to market themselves as such.

2. Humility:The willingness to continue honing my therapy skills to provide the most assistance to my clients. I consider this professional humility, acknowledging that I can always learn something new and being willing to share that knowledge with my clients and supervisees.

3. Love of my Community:The AIDS epidemic was devastating my community’s leadership. I co-chaired an LGBTQ+ Leadership Development program in Dallas. Also, I was one of the first openly out professional counselors to present professional workshops at the state and national levels for my professional organizations, AAMFT (American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy) and TAMFT (Texas Association of Marriage and Family Therapy).

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

In 2005, I decided to run for City Council in Dallas. My primary concern was whether I could maintain a private counseling practice, which hinges on anonymity and confidentiality, while also holding a public elected office. The City Council position didn’t offer a sufficient income for me to sustain myself, so I needed an additional source of income. I discussed this dilemma with many people close to me, including family, friends, and other elected officials. After carefully considering the input and advice from these individuals, I made the decision to enter the race. Although I didn’t win the election, the experience was incredibly valuable and enriching. I felt supported by the people whose opinions I most respected.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define empathy in a leadership context, and why do you believe it’s a vital trait for leaders to possess in today’s work environment?

I define empathy as the capacity to understand how someone is feeling because I’ve experienced that emotion in the past. When in a role of leadership, management, teaching, or consulting, it’s crucial for the leader to have the ability to “read the room.” Are people engaged and attentive? Are they fully present? If not, it’s essential to consider what might be affecting them. Often, distractions are connected to people’s emotional states and how they are feeling.

Can you share a personal experience where showing empathy as a leader significantly impacted a situation or relationship in your organization?

The majority of the individuals I work with are caregivers in various capacities. Caregivers often tend to prioritize the feelings of those they care for over their own. However, it’s crucial for them to assess their own well-being. Self-care is essential because you can’t effectively support others if you’re emotionally drained and burned out.

I encourage people to engage in self-assessment to gauge their current emotional state. I ask them to evaluate their energy level, enthusiasm, and attitude. I stress the importance of conducting this self-assessment without judgment, emphasizing that there’s no “right” way to feel. We find ourselves in our current emotional states due to our unique circumstances. However, we do have the power to choose how we react to these circumstances.

How do empathetic leaders strike a balance between understanding their team’s feelings and making tough decisions that might not be universally popular?

Leaders have diverse motivations and priorities. Some may place an emphasis on being liked or loved, and they may exhibit a degree of neediness. Others are driven by the desire to achieve goals and are highly solution-focused. Then there are leaders who are determined to climb the corporate ladder and are ambitious. When a leader can combine their own identity with an understanding of their team members and what’s best for the organization, they can make challenging decisions.

Effective leaders can use a chart or framework that encompasses personal characteristics, team dynamics, and the organization’s mission statement as guidelines for their decision-making process. This comprehensive approach allows them to make informed and strategic decisions that align with their personal values, the needs of their team, and the overarching goals of the organization.

What are some practical strategies or exercises that leaders can employ to cultivate and enhance their empathetic skills?

I am of the belief that you cannot teach compassion. Either you have it or you don’t. And, I believe that most people have compassion. However, there exists a small group of individuals who observe others to learn how to display compassion, and I refer to these people as manipulators. Only hire compassionate people right out of the gate!

How can empathy help leaders navigate the complexities of leading diverse teams and ensure inclusivity?

To foster inclusivity, it can be beneficial to appoint leaders who have diverse backgrounds and experiences themselves. This approach can create a solid foundation for building trust and understanding within the team. Assign them as the leader. Why not start there!

What’s your approach to ensuring that succession planning is a holistic process, and not just confined to the top layers of management? How do you communicate this philosophy through the organization?

I look at succession planning as a bell curve, where there’s greater employment movement at the ends of the curve than in the middle. So, as you find yourself talking with entry-level individuals at the beginning of the curve about their growth plans and the need to fill their positions as they progress, it’s necessary to have similar conversations with individuals at the opposite end of the curve. Turnover occurs as frequently at the initial entry level of an organization as it does within the top C-suite positions on the organizational chart.

Based on your experience and research, can you please share “5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership”?

1 . Having empathy in a leadership position will allow you to form a connection with your team. When you can establish a true connection with the group you are leading, they will be able to see your humanness, your self-questioning, and your vulnerabilities and think, “You know, if Candy is doing such a great job as a leader, I can too.” I have heard this several times in my life.

2 . Having empathy in a leadership role will allow you to be a trustworthy leader. Authenticity and competence contribute to a strong reputation for the leader. People often ask themselves, “What does Candy have to say about this?” In fact, I had two individuals purchase a thread bracelet for me with the initials “WWCS,” which stands for “What Would Candy Say.”

3 . Leading by example plays a crucial role in fostering empathy. Take fundraising, for example — it’s a task many people dislike. When someone sees the leader engaged in fundraising and achieving success, it sparks curiosity about the path they followed to get there. The leader can empathize with why people find fundraising challenging and unenjoyable because they once experienced these sentiments themselves. Consequently, the leader can help their followers in learning different fundraising skills and even make the process enjoyable. The leader can challenge their team, encouraging someone to have lunch with a couple of friends and see who can secure the largest donation. Whoever loses picks up lunch!

4 . I believe that as a leader, my role is to promote the growth of individuals, both in their professional and personal lives. It feels good to know that your contribution is valued by the organization and its stakeholders. I often stress to people that the skills they learn in their professional roles can have a positive impact on their personal lives. It’s quite likely that if you’re content and effective at work, you’re also probably content at home and fulfill your role as a good parent or spouse.

5 . The most caring and supportive action you can take as a leader is to listen. While most people think communication is primarily about talking, which is true, it’s the skill of listening that has the greatest impact on another person. This ability to listen and remember what someone said is powerful and holds significant meaning. And after all, isn’t our aim to lead a meaningful and purposeful life?

Are there potential pitfalls or challenges associated with being an empathetic leader? How can these be addressed?

What comes to mind as potential pitfalls and challenges in being an empathetic leader is twofold:

  1. Boundaries. A good leader knows where a professional relationship starts and stops. It starts when first communicating with someone, whether in person or in written or virtual form, even before hiring them. And it ends when the collegial relationship begins to intrude upon a friendship or romantic involvement. The leader must have the space to train and provide guidance to their followers, which can be challenging with friends and family.
  2. Professional Perspective. A leader understands the necessity of being able to assess the best practices for both the followers and the organization. This becomes challenging when the leader’s perspective blurs the line between facts and emotions when evaluating others. It can lead to a loss of objectivity.

Off-topic, but I’m curious. As someone steering the ship, what thoughts or concerns often keep you awake at night? How do those thoughts influence your daily decision-making process?

I’ve been lucky enough to have colleagues and staff who are smarter and have different skill sets than I. I sleep well at night.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

These two ideas are not new but are timeless and powerful:

  1. Pay It Forward. Volunteer and give back to your Community. It feels good to help others. You meet “like-minded people” who are also giving back. These people will become your friends and very possibly your spouse, boss, employee, and neighbor.
  2. If we are to “Love our Neighbor as Ourselves,” we must first learn to love ourselves. Every student, whether in school or beyond, should undergo a course on self-esteem. This course would involve addressing Family of Origin issues because we are a product of our childhood experiences. These early life experiences continue to shape our adult lives. I like to say that we spend 18 years in our Family of Origin and the rest of our lives trying to understand what happened to us during that time!

How can our readers further follow you online?

For individuals seeking therapy services, detailed information on booking an appointment is available at candymarcum.com. Those interested in staying updated with future therapy insights and further connecting with me online can do so via my social media profiles, using the handle @thecandymarcum on all platforms.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!