In this article, the last in a series of three on the subject of Developing 21st Century Leadership, we provide an illustration of the approach we would take to help your leaders and executives develop Empathy. 


The need for leaders with empathy and compassion has grown in recent years. Not only in response to findings about emotional intelligence, but also in response to the demand for a more human, authentic style of leadership, more inclusion and the growth of social and environmental conscience. So, how do you develop it?

We know topics like this are more readily understood and learned when the learning activity begins with ‘connecting the topic to the learner’. With empathy, we would start with this definition: ‘Empathy is the willingness and ability to experience the world as someone else does and to make decisions, or act in ways, that are sincerely respectful of it.’

The definition shows how deeply personal empathy is. To develop empathy, we believe it is important for participants to start by recalling what it means to them. This usually requires a bit of reflection. We often invite participants to take 15 minutes solo reflection time, away from the main training room, in a quiet space in the venue or in the grounds. We ask them to recall experiences from any time of their life when they were treated with sincere and genuine empathy. We ask them to recall an experience they are happy to share in a small group and specifically, what was the empathetic behaviour you were shown and what difference did it make. After the solo reflection time, we ask them to form small groups and share their examples with each other. In plenary, we then facilitate a group discussion to draw out a) the generic requirements of empathy and b) the benefits it offers.

If time and location permits, we recommend using an external ‘discovery learning visit’ to an organisation that is renowned for its empathy. Organisations in the caring professions are good examples – a children’s hospital, a homeless shelter, a school for children with special learning needs, a nursing service providing end of life care etc. Following a detailed briefing in advance, we would set up a discovery learning visit in which their key staff would talk about the challenges they face in serving their clients and the role of empathy in that setting.

Even though the host organisation is in a different sector (it is intentionally different to bench-marking), the opportunity for learning is vast and participants find it both moving and memorable. It is however very important that participants undertake the visit with specific questions in mind that will help them translate what they find to their own leadership world. We take time to set this up and ensure it is fully reviewed following the visit.

After a discovery learning visit, we would make links to established theory and practice in the corporate world and, linking it to the broader discipline of emotional intelligence, help participants identify how and with whom they might use more empathy in the way they work.

One very effective way of developing empathy with members of their own team, or with colleagues or their boss, is to ask participants to work in groups of three. Taking it in turns, we would lead a guided experiential learning exercise in which each person imagines they are sitting opposite the person with whom they want to empathise more (an empty chair is used to represent the person not present). After recalling and describing what it is like to be themselves with that person, they then move to the empty chair and describe what they believe it to be like for that person in relationship with them. Returning to their own chair, they then describe – empathetically – what they now know from the experience of seeing the world from the other person’s perspective.

The key take-aways are a deeper, personal understanding of what empathy really means, why it matters to them… and hence, why it matters to the people they lead or work with. As with all other capabilities, we facilitate guided action planning to assist the transfer of learning and insights into real work relationships.



We hope you have enjoyed reading our series of articles about 21st Century Leadership Development which describe how we may go about developing agility, collaboration and empathy with your leaders.

As all our work is bespoke, we always work collaboratively to ensure our approach will work effectively for you.



Author: Tim Coburn ([email protected])