Empathy, Leadership and the Coronavirus

Key Takeaways:

  • The world is in the grip of a deadly and frightening pandemic.
  • Leadership can practice empathy toward others during this difficult time.
  • Everyone can be a leader and be compassionate toward others now.

The world is grappling with the coronavirus — trying to stop its spread and help those afflicted.  Many people are asking themselves “How can I help?” (besides washing your hands and social distancing, of course!).  Here on Lead Read Today, we have posted about this pandemic more than once, emphasizing the importance of crisis leadership during times like this.

I agree with this, but I found myself wondering, what else can we do right now?  That got me thinking about the role of empathy.

In light of this outbreak, anti-Asian sentiment is on the rise. As the virus originated in China, many people of Asian descent around the world are being targeted. For instance, a man from Singapore was recently physically attacked in London; his assailants yelled, “We don’t want your coronavirus in our country!”

As a society, we have to agree that this is not OK.

As leaders, I argue that empathy toward others can help contribute to alleviating this problem.  Research shows that empathy in leaders is a good thing.  For instance, a recent study looked at empathy among nurse managers[1].  In this study, they found that the more nurses perceived their boss to be empathetic, the more they felt they thrived at their jobs.

Bottom line: Followers do better when their leaders have empathy!

How can empathy in leadership help with the coronavirus crisis and anti-Asian attacks?  Empathetic leaders can have a top-down effect on culture, creating more empathy toward others among everyone.  A recent article was full of information about this[2].  The authors argue that although Western society typically thinks about empathy on an individual level (i.e., being empathetic toward one person), in other cultures empathy is broader, encompassing other individuals but also society in general.

In other words, leaders can help create what the authors call “inclusive cultural empathy.”

Obviously, the aforementioned Singaporean man in London did not cause the coronavirus; let’s all be more compassionate and empathetic toward others (those of Asian descent as well as everyone else) to put a stop to incidents such as these.

Let’s all help contribute to inclusive cultural empathy toward all people, not just certain individuals.  Perhaps leaders can help with this; modeling empathetic behavior can lead to others following suit and being more compassionate during this difficult time.

Empathy in leadership can (and should) manifest in many ways with regard to responding to the coronavirus (not just in light of anti-Asian attacks). For instance:

  • With many more people working from home and children staying home from school, some employees may struggle working and also unexpectedly taking care of children and/or family members. Leaders can be considerate about this.
  • A global pandemic is scary, and this can be challenging for the mental health of employees. Some people’s anxiety can be aggravated — and some people can just generally be distracted and/or worried. Leaders can be considerate about this.
  • In general, things are not “business as usual” — special times require special considerations.

And remember, empathy during this crisis doesn’t just apply to formal leaders with titles in organizations.Anyone and everyone can be a leader and model good behavior.  We can all help!

Do you have other thoughts on how empathy can help during this difficult time? Post about it on LinkedIn! Spread the word. So many people have come together to help fight this pandemic — let’s all get involved and take care of each other!

[1] Mortier, A. V., Vlerick, P., & Clays, E. (2016). Authentic leadership and thriving among nurses: The mediating role of empathy. Journal of Nursing Management, 24, 357–365.

[2] Pedersen, P. B., & Pope, M. (2010). Inclusive cultural empathy for successful global leadership. American Psychologist, 65, 841–854.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.