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March 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 6

Leading with Empathy

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Being able to understand others’ lives and perspectives is a key factor in emotionally intelligent leadership.

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Leadership
Leading with Empathy
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Our brains are wired for survival, but also for empathy. We have mirror neurons that fire when we see other people’s pain. Let us learn to love ourselves, so we can be more open and compassionate to others, and so we can take down the walls that limit who we can be and what we can contribute.
—Melanie Greenberg
About eight years ago, I was attending one of my first district leadership meetings as the new coordinator of educational equity and diversity when my boss at the time, the executive director of student services, started discussing an area of expertise I was unaware of: what it takes to become an emotionally intelligent leader. He outlined five key elements of this kind of leadership: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. I have to admit, even as a trained social worker, I wasn’t completely sold at first. I thought to myself, Do I really believe these five things will help us better serve our education community? How will I remember all of them, let alone apply them to everyday situations?
It took a deep dive into the research and some active listening during subsequent trainings on emotional intelligence (EI) for me to realize he was on to something. Honestly, the more I learned about it, the more it reminded me of how essential empathy is both in my own practice and in the practices of my peers. I tried to figure out how to become a leader who was truly emotionally intelligent.

The Importance of Empathy

I started with the element that spoke to me most—empathy—because, for me, it’s at the core of being an emotionally intelligent leader. It’s also a skill that transcends the classroom. Forbes Magazine has recently run several articles about the significance of empathy in workplace leadership. Empathy is seen as an antidote to stress (Brower, 2021); as a way for leaders to respect employees’ need for a more meaningful and human-centered work experience (Hunkins, 2023); as an essential component in building trust within teams and organizations (Rosario-Maldonado, 2023); and as encouraging diversity and inclusion, as well as better decision-making (Patel, 2023).
As leaders, it’s our responsibility to create an organizational culture in which both students and staff thrive. Empathy plays an important role in preparing students to be productive citizens of the world, as well as effective leaders who work well with others. Empathy is equally important in our ­interactions with the adults around us. As a social worker, an equity facilitator, a district administrator, and a school board member, some of my best work came from using my skills of empathy.
Why this affinity for empathy? Maybe it’s because I’ve sometimes felt like the underdog, hoping that others would understand me and spend less time judging me. Maybe it’s because I saw empathy firsthand in my grandparents’ love for the Black community on the southside of Chicago. Maybe it’s because of my ­background in social work. And maybe it’s all of the above. What I do know is that empathy has never failed me.
To be an emotionally intelligent leader, you don’t need to master the five elements of self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. Just find one element that aligns with your core values and figure out how to weave that skill into your practice. I’ve named empathy as one of the core values of emotionally intelligent leadership; I’m hoping you will, too.

Student Discipline: A View into Empathy

Surprisingly, student discipline hearings have been some of my greatest sources of empathetic growth. Attending them gave me a different perspective on students, on the purpose of discipline, and on how to repair harm. In my first year as a district administrator in a large school district in Missouri, I sat in on several such hearings. That experience showed me that I needed to do a better job of getting to know those frequent visitors to the principal’s office—you know, those students who sometimes spend more time in the office than they do in class, the ones who no one can truly figure out. I wanted to learn more about their stories: how they landed in a disciplinary hearing, who took care of them at home, and what some of their strengths were in and outside of school. Because my role required me to spend a good bit of time in principals’ offices, as I waited to see the administrator, I would chat with any student who had been sent there. I would ask them how their day was going, what they were doing in the office, and what classes they were taking that semester. In time, I was able to build rapport with many of them.
Because I served 30 schools as a district administrator, the time I spent in each was necessarily limited. However, whenever I visited a school, I made a point of asking questions. I asked students, “What’s your favorite class this semester?” “What’s your favorite book?” “Do you help any younger siblings with homework?” I questioned teachers as well, inquiring, “How is the semester going for you?” “What students stand out in your classes this year?” “Is there anything I can do to help you with a struggling student that you know I have good rapport with?”
I also observed disciplinary interactions between administrators and students so I could better understand students’ needs and motivations and how their administrators worked to address those needs. In addition, I participated in lunch and hallway duty. Sometimes just being around enabled me to witness moments I would ­typically miss if I were just rushing in and out of meetings.

The real question is never 'What’s wrong with that student?' but, instead, 'What happened to them?'

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As I was going into one administrative meeting several years ago, I happened to see a student I knew, whom I hadn’t seen in a while, in the hall. The student wasn’t someone who was frequently sent to the office. I was always amazed by their kind smile and warm nature because I knew they had faced some difficult challenges in their life. We exchanged hellos, and they continued on their way. Afterwards, something told me I needed to ask the social worker how that student was really doing. I learned that the hot water had been turned off in their home; as a result, the school was washing their clothes and sending home microwaveable food almost daily. I was surprised and grateful for the care the school was giving that student.
A few months later, this same student ended up in a disciplinary hearing for an offense that normally would have required an out-of-school suspension. However, I knew that suspension was not an option because we couldn’t have the student stay home for days with no hot water and no consistent meals. Collectively, we figured out how to keep the student in a school setting, how to keep services in place, and how to have the student repair the harm they’d caused.
This was a pivotal moment for me. I wondered how many other discipline meetings I had sat in on without knowing a student’s full story. I realized that empathy was often missing from discipline decisions. Our frequent office visitors aren’t there solely because they like making trouble; they’re typically there because the emotions they’re feeling under the surface are rough and hard. Anger is a surface-level emotion; what you typically find under it is hurt, sadness, and trauma. We will never stop people from feeling angry if we don’t address the core emotions behind it.
The next time you see one of those frequent office visitors, ask them “How are you? How are you feeling? Is there anything you need?” getting across the idea that you’re truly interested and concerned. Then see where the conversation goes. You might need to ask them two or three times to get an answer. When the student feels comfortable enough to reply, you can respond with empathy and search for solutions for the issues they’re facing. As emotionally intelligent leaders, we need to remind our staff that the real question is never “What’s wrong with that student?” but instead, “What ­happened to them?” There’s always a story behind the behavior.

Building—and Practicing—Empathy

Students would sometimes ask me, “Ms. Hogan, what exactly do you do here?” At that time, I was coordinator of educational equity and diversity, and I was in multiple school buildings almost every day. The TV series Scandal was popular then; it was about a woman, Olivia Pope, who ran a crisis management firm. I would say, “I’m like Olivia Pope. I’m a fixer. I come in when all other options fail to make things better for kids and adults.”
And all this was true. I prided myself on being a good problem solver and fixer. Principals, staff members, school resource officers, and students have come up to me and said, “The building just feels better when you’re here.” It’s a wonderful compliment. I did a good job of making difficult decisions because I was an empathetic leader who tried to understand the perspectives of everyone involved and who created solutions infused with empathy, love, and understanding.

The next time you’re called on to make a difficult decision, take a few moments and walk in the shoes of those your solution will affect.

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For example, one student and an administrator consistently bumped heads. Neither liked how the other spoke to them, and both came to me to complain about being disrespected. The student had been formally disciplined because of these ­interactions, which led to an even greater rift between them.
I spent a good deal of time being empathetic to both their concerns. I kept hoping that playing the middle woman would help resolve the issues—but it didn’t. After about a month of this, I decided to hold a restorative circle to figure out how we could get to some common ground. Both the administrator and the student expressed their frustration and discussed the various misunderstandings that had occurred during the course of their interactions. Both came to see each other in a more human light. They even hugged at the end. The next time the student had an issue, they went to the administrator for help, noting, “I knew they would understand me, based on our previous conversation. They get me now.” A few months later, this administrator named this student their Student of the Month. For me, this was an ­empathetic breakthrough on both ends.
Leading with empathy is a skill, and just like any hobby or talent, we need to practice it. For me, that includes reading books about people whose lives differ from my own. For example, in The Silence That Binds Us (2022), Joanna Ho describes how a Chinese-American teenager fights back against racism. In The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives, Dashka Slater recounts an incident that occurred in 2013 in which a Black student, in a reckless prank, set fire to an agender student’s skirt and ended up being charged with hate crimes and facing life imprisonment.
Being an emotionally intelligent leader is also a matter of trusting my gut in decision-making, being willing to make mistakes, apologizing when needed, and always putting the needs of the people I’m helping first. I don’t get it right 100 percent of the time, but being empathetic has continually opened me up to insights that are not immediately evident. I find out that a student lacks consistent housing, that there’s not enough food in the home, that the parents are divorcing, that there’s been a death in the family. If we’re unaware of these things, it’s impossible to come up with an empathetic response and a viable solution to a school issue. Too often, we look for fast solutions that don’t always solve the problem.

Worthy—Or Not?

Emotionally intelligent leadership is necessary in creating healthy school environments. Leaders who lack empathy miss opportunities to connect with their staff and students in meaningful ways, truly repair harm, and teach valuable lifelong lessons along the way. Maya Angelou has been credited with saying, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” At some point in our journeys through schooling, we all remember the educators who made us feel worthy and cared for—as well as those who didn’t. I’ve never learned from leaders or educators who failed to value or see me.
The question becomes, What type of educator and leader do you want to be? Failing to accurately read the emotional cues and needs of others can leave us disconnected and unable to serve all students equitably.
The next time you’re called on to make a difficult decision, take a few moments and walk in the shoes of those your solution will affect. Your response may very well change. For me, finding the time to do this has always been the hardest part. We educators often feel that as issues arise, we must solve them quickly for the sake of the students. However, we all would be so much better at solving problems if we applied true empathy in the solution. In these moments, I remind myself, Brittany, make the time.

Leaders who lack empathy miss opportunities to connect with their staff and students in meaningful ways.

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It Can Be a Challenge

I want to be clear; it’s not always easy to show up and be empathetic. We sometimes have to deal with difficult personalities that make it hard for us to take the other person’s perspective. When a parent yells at you, a staff member disregards you, or a student speaks rudely to you, it can challenge you. However, those who need our empathy the most are typically the same ones who make it hardest for us to show them empathy. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes includes remembering when you wished that someone would have done the same for you, especially when you weren’t showing up as your best self. Empathy requires grace and patience—and, luckily, both are free.
Remember, too, that we need to extend empathy not just to students, but to staff and ourselves. Every person with whom we come in contact deserves someone who actively listens to their concerns, takes their perspective into account, and responds in a caring and nonjudgmental way. It’s all positively correlated: leaders who are emotionally cared for support the emotional needs of their staff, who, in turn, support the emotional needs of their students. Taking care of ourselves emotionally as leaders benefits everyone who looks to us for guidance and support.

A Path to Better Problem Solving

With his focus on emotional intelligence, my former boss was on to something. Intentionally cultivating empathy in my practice has made me a better leader and educator. It has enabled me to more fully understand those with whom I worked and the community of kids I served. Emotional intelligence may not solve all the problems we face in education. However, it will help us make ­decisions that serve everyone in a more meaningful and life-changing way.

Reflect & Discuss

In your decision-making, how easy is it for you to step into another's shoes and see an issue from their perspective?

How have you used empathyeither with students or colleaguesto get to the story behind the behavior?

What one change could you make to become a more empathetic school leader?

References

Brower, T. (2021, September 19). Empathy is the most important leadership skill according to research. Forbes.

Greenberg, M. (2012, October 1). The 50 best quotes on self-love. Psychology Today.

Hunkins, A. (2023, April 18). Why leading with empathy is more important than ever. Forbes.

Patel, L. (2023, September 29). The power of self-awareness and empathy in ­leadership. Forbes.

Rosario-Maldonado, L. (2023, May 15). Empathy: The secret ingredient for exceptional leadership and talent ­management. Forbes.

Brittany Hogan is a national keynote speaker, an educator, a social worker, an equity consultant, and a former school board member from Chicago, Illinois. For 15 years, she has made St. Louis her home, where she has dedicated her career to serving families and communities throughout the region.

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