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Empathy in Leadership

A lack of women in leadership position is a commonly seen challenge facing the business world, specifically in law firms. Popular belief used to be that women were too emotional and soft to lead effectively. Over the past decade or so, however, a shift has been taking place in the professional world, with law firms being a bit slow to catch up. Professionals are now understanding the need for and benefits of including more women in leadership and management roles. These traits that professional women were once recognized as ‘negative’ have now emerged as strengths in leadership; allowing women to be viewed as the gifted leaders they are and can be.

Traditionally, women tend to possess what have generally been known as ‘soft skills’ in work environments. Flexibility, positivity, integrity, empathy and teamwork are a handful of these highly coveted soft skills for leaders, and these are also some of the naturally occurring qualities that make women prime candidates for leadership roles. According to Forbes, empathy is the number one soft skill a leader can possess because it allows you to improve your listening, help you understand your clients and more successfully motivate your team.

Empathy, defined by Merriam-Webster as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another [...],” has a profound impact on others. When shown empathy, people in turn exhibit trust, appreciation and loyalty. Empathetic leaders care deeply about the individuals they lead and are invested in their development. An added benefit? There tends to be a trickle effect, making empathy a learned behavior and demonstrating it also causes it to spread it throughout teams and work environments. Relationships are in turn fostered and strengthened and, as all leaders know, relationships are the key to success in almost every area of business.

Not only are firms in need of increased numbers of women in leadership roles, but clients are also recognizing and appreciating female counsel more than ever. “Clients have so many good law firms to choose among that they don't have to hire jerks anymore. When high-performance skill is a given, other factors loom larger: trust, comfort, dedication and empathy. These once were dismissed as ‘soft’ or emotional traits. It turns out they're only soft for hard people.” This quote, attributed to Aric Press in the American Lawyer article “Big Law and Me” demonstrates this shift in desired traits in attorneys. I had the pleasure of learning from Aric as he was a part of the faculty at George Washington University’s Masters in Law Firm Management program. Times have changed- clients are more sophisticated and knowledgeable - they don’t need to settle for sub-par. Gone are the days where a good education, sound legal knowledge and robust experience are the dominating factors for hiring legal counsel. Now, more than ever, clients are looking for authentic personal connections and to feel understood by their attorneys.

So, what does this mean for you? If you are a female, step up! Take advantage of the leadership opportunities available to you so that you can begin to hone your skills. Look for an organization that you are passionate about helping - civic organizations, non-profits and even your childrens’ schools are great places to volunteer, making the partnership mutually beneficial. In your work environment, be especially aware of any opportunities you might have to develop leadership skills. And if there aren’t any apparent, look for opportunities to create your own leadership path. Pay attention, learn what you can and be a good listener. Men, you play a role here, too. Look within your firms and the organizations that you are a part of. Do you have women in leadership roles? If not, why? Can you be doing more to raise strong, capable female leaders? You, your organization, your employees and your clients would all benefit.

If empathy is not a skill you possess, as a male or a female, don’t fret. Empathy can be learned, and we would argue should be learned. In various situations, ask yourself questions. How might this situation affect someone? Is there a chance someone could feel unappreciated or unsupported? If you were in the same situation, how would you feel or act? Don’t just recognize others’ feelings but try to truly care about and relate to them. It can also be greatly beneficial to find a mentor or a coach that can help you think and talk through various situations, actual or fictitious. Sometimes it just takes someone asking questions and getting you to think (and feel) outside of your own experiences.

Another skill that often works in tandem with empathy is listening. If you aren’t truly listening to others – including verbal and non-verbal communications – you can’t truly understand them. If someone comes to you to express concerns or frustrations, listen. Let him or her finish speaking before you insert your comment/ opinion. The key isn’t always in finding solutions – sometimes just letting them talk through a situation or voice their thoughts is all that is needed to communicate that you care.

My challenge to you—be the difference. Lead, don’t follow. Identify where diversity may be lacking and, if necessary, be prepared to step up, listen and advocate for yourself and/or all of the strong, capable females around you.


About the Author

Society 54 Co-Founder Jill Huse is renowned as a trusted professional services advisor. Jill, a certified Worldwide Association of Business Coaches Coach, is highly regarded for her progressive ingenuity, research-based strategy and, most importantly, her ability to deliver results for clients.

She has worked in professional services marketing (legal and accounting) for more than eighteen years. She has an innate ability to identify, encourage and develop her clients’ unique and differentiating professional strengths, and to help clients leverage these strengths to meet and exceed bottom line goals.

As the director of marketing at one of the most reputable AmLaw firms in the southeast, Jill structured and led her team in developing, implementing and managing award-winning communication, business development and marketing initiatives. Further, Jill is a tenured member of the Legal Marketing Association (LMA), currently serving on the International Board of Directors and previously as the past president of the Southeastern Chapter. Additionally, she is one of the founding members of Law 2.5, a roundtable think tank focused on the future of the legal industry and how to implement and lead change.

Not only is Jill well connected, she is highly respected and widely sought for her expertise and paramount perspective in all aspects of professional services marketing.

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