Information age calls for empathic leaders

Frédéric Dalsace, Professor of Marketing and Strategy at IMD, Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland.

In the era of rapid digitalization and emerging new technologies, one may think that they would be at the center of learning efforts. But no. Focus should instead be put on the leaders’ capacity for reflective leadership and on fostering empathy, humility and audacity.

Life is more complicated today than, say, thirty years ago, when there were no laptops, no e-mails, nor mobile phones. Everything happened more slowly compared to today’s fast pace at work and in our private lives.

Today, mobile communication devices, social media and 24/7 connectivity mean that work and nonwork roles are overlapping more and more, and almost everybody is working at home outside the office hours and during weekends.

“Sunday evening is the new Monday morning if you look at the flow of work-related e-mails. And a response is expected within hours, not days. It sometimes feels that companies are prioritizing ‘busyness’, not business. In my opinion, we should consider very carefully if this is what we want to have – this culture of boundarylessness – in our company or in our society. Does it really give us the best results and brightest innovations at work or joyful nonwork life?” says Frédéric Dalsace, Professor of Marketing and Strategy at IMD, Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland.

But it is not only employees in white-collar roles whose work has changed radically. Digitalization and Industrial Internet, among other things, have changed the nature of the work done in blue-collar jobs. New technologies have made the work partly easier and safer and partly more demanding in terms of adopting new computer and mobile applications as well as information interpreting skills.

Pursuing reflective leadership

Technological development is so fast that it doesn’t make sense to concentrate so much on learning specific solutions that may be old in only a couple of months; it is more important to support people in creating a mindset of continuous learning. 

To succeed in this, leaders themselves should, firstly, adopt a mindset called reflective leadership and, secondly, foster empathy, humility, and audacity as fundamental aspects at work.

Reflection supports leaders in developing, understanding, and adopting versatile leadership styles.

Reflective leadership is an approach where leaders constantly reflect on what they do and how they act in their leader roles, and evaluate their decisions, mistakes and successes in a constructive way. What did I do and what was the outcome of my action? What did I achieve today? What were the tools I used? What did I learn? How can I become better? Who could help me to develop? These are the kinds of questions reflective leaders ask themselves.

Reflection also supports leaders in developing, understanding, and adopting versatile leadership styles that are the best fit with different individuals and situations in order to make the biggest impact.

The three fundaments of leadership, customer centricity and innovation

Instead of skills in areas that are usually connected to management and leadership development, Dalsace highlights quite different things that are necessary for a leader to master.

“Empathy, humility and audacity form the true fundament of leadership, customer centricity and innovation,” Dalsace explains.

Empathy, the ability to feel with others, is needed to create shared value – it is the number-one starting point for customer centricity and essential for fruitful interaction with colleagues, team members or suppliers. Humility helps people to be open to learning new things and adopting new ways of thinking, a personality element necessary in times of rapid change and need for innovation. And last, but not least, audacity helps people to dare to think big, to take risks and to try new things.

Managing the work–nonwork boundaries

A growing number of employees globally are feeling increased work–life stress and are in need of better ways to manage the boundaries between the work and nonwork parts of their lives. Why? In order to be effective, productive and innovative at work people should be able to focus on their work duties – and, on the other hand, contentment in one’s private life requires that the focus can be directed to the things they find important in life. Both parts of life – work and nonwork – contribute to and impact each other.

“People have different personal strategies to cope with the work–nonwork balance. Some of us choose integration, others choose separation and some a combination of these two as their strategies. What you choose depends on the degree of control you have over your work, your situation in life and your personality,” says Dalsace.

The integration approach means that a person shifts flexibly between work and nonwork roles; separation emphasizes the clear boundaries between work and nonwork. A combination of these two may occur when an individual adopts the integration approach during weekdays and separation during weekends.

It is a leader’s responsibility to act as a role model and ensure that individuals in her/his team have an opportunity to reach a work–nonwork balance by using the strategy that suits them best.

Empathy, humility and audacity form the true fundament of leadership, customer centricity and innovation.

“Open-minded support for these different strategies is an important way to help people to be at their best – both in their job roles and outside work.” 

Strong ethics supports decision-making in challenging situations

Dalsace points even out ethics as something that should be included in management and leadership studies.

“Ethics helps us to find and create meaning and purpose for companies and supports organizations to act in a way that is beneficial for the whole society.”

Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and other modern technologies provide great opportunities to improve both businesses and people’s lives. But the question is: how much decision-making power and in what contexts should we humans allow AI to have. Strong ethics and the readiness to ask eye-opening questions will help us to make conscious decisions in these kinds of questions.

“I sincerely hope that we could teach the future leaders to question where and in what way do we really want to use all these possibilities created by advanced technology,” Dalsace concludes.