Editor’s Note: In a recent editorial meeting for the blog, podcast and Saturday videos, we discussed what was lacking in  executive interviews.  John offered that he was sorely disappointed when he tried to draw out executives on issues such as the importance of  providing empathy and building trust.  “Candidates just seem to want to shy away from these so-called ‘soft skills’.  It is as if it isn’t cool or professional to talk about their feelings on these matters.  But it does.  The best leaders understand these issues and are able to talk about they incorporate empathy and trust in achieving better results,”  John said. Hence this post.  Please share your thoughts on this important subject.

I recently read an inventory of essential leadership skills, and I was surprised, and more than a little disappointed, not to find two essentials competencies: building trust and conveying empathy.

There was a reference to emotional intelligence and I presume that my two examples are warehoused somewhere in that category, but frankly that just won’t get it as far as I am concerned.  Building trust and the ability to convey your commitment for the well-being of your team are not optional, preferred competences for recruiting a Chief Executive or any other executive who will be responsible for leading people.  

Let me begin with conveying empathy.  I have used this story before but I can think of none better to make this point:

In her wonderful book “Life Reimagined — The Science, Art and Opportunity of Midlife” — former NPR correspondent Barbara Bradley Hagerty tells the wonderful story of chain store magnate W. T. Grant whose variety stores populated the Midwest until 1976, who commissioned Harvard University to help him identify the characteristics of a “good chain store manager.”  When the US Army heard about the study they expressed an interest in participating.  They were struggling to understand why some recruits quickly advanced up the chain of command and others, some superior in appearance, education and social standing, remained as privates or low-level non-commissioned officers. 

The common denominator: those that succeeded and advanced in rank came from homes where the strong love of a mother was readily apparent.  This was not a point lost on the developers of curriculum at West Point.  Commanders who exuded warmth and compassion for their men were more successful. 

If it works for the Army, could it be that it would work in the civilian world?

As it would happen, a leader’s ability to convey empathy, to demonstrate commitment to their people, is also a critical factor in building trust.  Without trust, the essential lifeblood in a relationship, you will not achieve maximum effectiveness of your people. As a leader u simply cannot afford this kind of deficit.

So many executives are uncomfortable talking about leadership in these terms but the reality is they are at the heart of what leadership is all about.