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Book Summary: Leading with Empathy – Understanding the Needs of Today’s Workforce

Empathy is today’s business leader’s power skill. Empathy helps you move toward self-understanding and growth as a leader and collaborate meaningfully with your team. When you practice empathy, you can achieve a deeper understanding of your customers’ needs and thus serve them more effectively.

The good news: empathy is trainable! In this book summary for Leading with Empathy, Gautham Pallapa explains how you can elevate your game using emotional intelligence.


In the wake of COVID-19 and the massive damage it inflicted, author Gautham Pallapa offers a soothing prescription for healing. At this very appropriate time for empathy and kindness, he casts a wide net, offering wisdom and insight that can benefit anyone, including and especially workplace leaders. Though some people are born with greater empathetic capacity than others, Pallapa believes empathy is a skill you can develop through practice and attentiveness. Empathy, a crucial business attribute, may also be society’s ace in the hole on a long road to recovery.

Book Summary: Leading with Empathy - Understanding the Needs of Today’s Workforce


  • Positives exist amid the COVID-19 pandemic’s devastation.
  • Empathy fosters relationships and shows humanity’s best side.
  • Leaders elevate their game using emotional intelligence.
  • Egotistical and materialistic pursuits impede empathy.
  • Introspection sets the tone for self-improvement.
  • “Limiting beliefs” only hold back your unlimited potential.

Positives exist amid the COVID-19 pandemic’s devastation.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s economic, political and social repercussions changed the lives of countless millions of people worldwide. The pandemic affected roughly half of the 3.3 billion people in the global workforce. And in the United States, more than 26 million adults said they were unable to feed their families properly in 2020.

“If empathy is so important and valuable to humanity, why do we not have an abundance of empathy in our communities?”

Fear, anxiety, isolation, depression and loneliness have increased dramatically since COVID-19 emerged in early 2020. Finding positive news amid the adversity is difficult, but if you look through an optimistic lens, you’ll notice these encouraging developments.

  • Vaccine innovations – Scientists in various fields worked frantically to develop effective immunotherapies while bypassing the customary extended testing periods. They produced several vaccines to combat COVID-19.
  • Sturdier relationships – Social distancing and lockdowns gave people the opportunity to spend quality time together. Communication between parents and children improved. Author Gautham Pallapa reports that he happily spent more than 900 additional hours with his family.
  • Improved hygiene – More people recognize the importance of washing and sanitizing their hands regularly and covering their mouth while sneezing or coughing. People have also learned how social distancing helps prevent the spread of germs.
  • Less pollution – Business shutdowns took many commercial vehicles off the road. Commuters who were accustomed to driving to work had to stay home. Traffic volume dropped by more than 80%, significantly improving air quality.
  • More acts of kindness – With essentially nowhere to go, people interacted more with their neighbors, offering emotional and financial support to the most needy. For example, neighbors went shopping and ran errands for those who were unable to leave their houses.

Empathy fosters relationships and shows humanity’s best side.

Empathy is the best method for healing a world the COVID-19 pandemic devastated in so many ways. Individuals and groups have an ideal opportunity to raise the level of caring and compassion in society, but that will require a concerted effort, particularly when the social winds appear to be blowing in the opposite direction.

“Empathy is in short supply. Isolation and tribalism are rampant.” (Jamil Zaki, The War for Kindness)

Jamil Zaki, author of The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, believes you can cultivate and fine-tune your empathetic skills. Some people are born with a greater capacity for empathy, but your upbringing, culture and experiences are the most influential factors in determining your capacity for empathy.

Though everyone has a unique personality, people in general are social beings who thrive on connection. To achieve connection, you need empathy, which enables you to identify with the feelings of your fellow human beings. Sympathy and empathy are not the same. Sympathy means you feel bad for others – the homeless, for example – without really grasping what they experience. Empathy enables you to put yourself in other people’s place and help alleviate their suffering. And empathy sustains relationships, which require communication and acknowledging the emotional state of others.

“When you lead with empathy, you are empowering humanity in the face of adversity.”

People often view leaders stereotypically as militaristic enforcers with little or no regard for human emotions. Consequently, employees suppress their feelings for fear their bosses or even their colleagues will view them as vulnerable or incompetent. Empathetic leaders genuinely care about their employees’ well-being and address their physical and psychological needs. Empathy also inspires people to help total strangers in their greatest times of need, such as during the aftermath of a major disaster, for example. Empathy enables human beings to show their kindest, most evolved and generous aspects.

Leaders elevate their game using emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence or emotional quotient (EQ) consists of traits that effective, respected leaders have in common, such as compassion, personal appeal, vision, approachability, creativity and foresight. Emotionally intelligent leaders are in control of their emotions. They know how to handle stress and conflict while minimizing the disruptive effects those two forces can have on the workforce. Good leaders can explain the reasons for change without sending employees into a panic. This skill is particularly valuable now as companies recover from COVID-19. Reassurances and messages of unity comfort and motivate employees. Employees respect and admire leaders who spend time on the front lines doing instead of preaching.

“Emotional intelligence is essential for successful leaders, and demonstrating empathy is imperative in these adverse situations.”

Some individuals are highly empathetic. They may experience pain when they learn of terrible news or envision themselves in the situation of those who are suffering. They may find distressing events or dealing with people in crisis sometimes overwhelming or enervating. Empathetic people listen well; they recognize nonverbal hints and sense when others are insincere or exploitative. The three most typical forms of empathy are:

  • Cognitive” – You place yourself in other people’s positions to understand their experiences. Leaders and managers utilize cognitive empathy to appreciate their employees’ circumstances and help them succeed. Cognitive empathy is deliberate and doesn’t require an emotional investment.
  • Emotional” – You may actually experience the other person’s emotional pain. Leaders should demonstrate emotional empathy in the workplace to build trust and strengthen their relationships, with one precaution: Don’t become so involved you neglect your own needs.
  • Compassionate” – You not only recognize signs of distress or pain, but attempt to assist the individual by listening or taking action. You dedicate time to helping the person deal with his or her issue.

“The difference between empathy and sympathy can be confusing at first because both of these emotions start from good intentions.”

Empathy is acknowledging and experiencing another’s anguish while offering a helping hand. Empathy helps other people feel comfortable expressing their pain. It creates a bond of trust and understanding. According to Google’s statistics, searches for the phrase “what does empathy mean” have increased more than 3,000% since the COVID-19 pandemic’s onset.

Egotistical and materialistic pursuits impede empathy.

While empathy may be on the rise, it is not yet a “core value” in society. Human beings typically struggle to put others’ needs ahead of their own. That’s understandable, considering the evolutionary instinct for survival, but the difference between self-focused and “self-obsessed” is significant.

Some people may believe in entitlement and demean those they perceive as inferior. They can become addicted to chasing material wealth. Many young people base their self-esteem on another currency: the number of social media followers, likes or comments they receive. Social media platforms such as Facebook, TikTok and Instagram provide instant gratification that becomes addictive.

“The concept of digital detox did not exist before smartphones became mainstream.”

Stress and adversity cause people to retreat into “safety bubbles” occupied by those with similar economic, political, religious and educational viewpoints. Increasing your capacity for empathy requires you to broaden your horizons and reach out to new people. Initiate conversations with fellow online employees. Ask neighbors or co-workers outside your bubble to join you for lunch. Try to learn about their lives. Write down a few noteworthy things about your interaction. Set aside all electronic devices when you’re having a conversation – even with people you know well. Distractions make it difficult to pay attention and read nonverbal signals.

“To create a heartfelt connection with someone requires having a natural curiosity to get to know the person.”

Joining a cause or volunteering is an excellent way to increase your empathy. People establish social bonds through common ventures. Help out with a community project, volunteer as a tutor or shop for those unable to leave their home. When the author and his wife moved to the United States, they volunteered at several events. They shared their stories and the challenges of living in a new country far away from family. This inspired fellowship that helped alleviate their loneliness.

Introspection sets the tone for self-improvement.

During COVID-19, countless articles focused on how leaders managed the crisis – what they did well and what they could have done better. In reality, though, leadership is complex. It demands consistent learning and practicing.

Emotional intelligence (EQ) often separates exceptional leaders from those with comparable skills and know-how. Some scientists believe people are born with EQ; others say anyone can learn it and improve over time. Leaders strong in EQ know how to channel their emotions positively while successfully handling the feelings of others.

“Self-awareness and self-reflection help us be more sensitive to our behaviors, emotions, triggers and pressure points.”

Leaders often find introspection challenging. They are consumed with responsibilities and don’t set aside time to look inward. Others resist self-reflection because they view their weaknesses as character flaws instead of learning opportunities. Some leaders believe it’s egotistical to spend time examining themselves, but introspection doesn’t require a huge time commitment. Before your workday begins, ask yourself, “What feelings am I experiencing now?” and “What events could prevent me from having a positive day?” Repeat the process at around lunchtime. Get your feelings down on paper and acknowledge your emotions. Do another self-assessment at the end of the day and pinpoint areas in which you can improve.

“You can never work on the other person’s well-being, emotions and improvements until you master operating your emotional level.”

The difficult and sad periods in life that everyone experiences often leave lingering negativity. The effects increase when you’re already stressed, perhaps working remotely and missing normal physical interaction with your colleagues. Overwhelming concern and worry can shut you down and create a state of hopelessness that threatens your ability to lead with empathy.

“Limiting beliefs” only hold back your unlimited potential.

Limiting beliefs are a serious threat to any leader. They imprint in your mind during your upbringing, education and societal interactions. “No pain, no gain” and “money is the root of all evil” are among the negative adages that may resonate in your head. Personal limiting beliefs, such as, “I’m not smart enough to solve this problem” or “I can’t handle the pressure if I am promoted” can prevent you from taking on new challenges and impede your growth.

“Many limiting beliefs originate from our childhood when societal and family values were instilled in us.”

Don’t allow limiting beliefs to imprison you. First, recognize the distinction between failing and being a failure. Failing signifies effort. Failing at something means you’re learning and acquiring knowledge. Identify at least three occasions in the past when you conquered a limiting belief. This exercise will boost your confidence, and may provide a clue or two for resolving your current issue. Finally, tack on a “yet” to the end of any limiting belief. For instance, “I can’t solve this hard problem – yet.” It’s a dynamic word that affirms self-confidence and indicates you are headed in the right direction.

About the author

Gautham Pallapa, PhD, the founder of Transformity and an executive adviser at VMware, follows the mantra “Transform with Empathy.”