How To Lead With Empathy

A new breed of CEOs is defined less by “command and control” and more by “inspire and empower.”

How To Lead With Empathy
Satya Nadella, flanked by former Microsoft CEOs Bill Gates, left, and Steve Ballmer, greets his colleagues as their leader for the first time, in February 2014. [Photo: Microsoft/Corbis/Getty Images]

My first boss was a bully. Just before I started working for him, a rumor circulated that he’d once thrown a desk out the window. Maybe the story was apocryphal, but it didn’t feel that way to those of us under his thumb. He would yell and curse. We were all afraid of him. As unpleasant as it was, though, I have to admit that the fear was a powerful motivator.


But there are other, better ways to get a team to perform. In today’s business world, bullying tactics are increasingly backfiring (case in point: Travis Kalanick at Uber). Meanwhile, a new breed of CEOs is rising, defined less by “command and control” and more by “inspire and empower.”

No leader better epitomizes this approach, and its potential for outsize success, than Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Following the notoriously combative Steve Ballmer, Nadella has dramatically revived Microsoft’s reputation and its relevance by emphasizing collaboration and what he calls a “learn-it-all” culture versus the company’s historical know-it-all one. As senior editor Harry McCracken explains in “Microsoft Rewrites the Code,” the results have been eye-popping: more than $250 billion in market value gains in less than four years—a feat that, quantitatively, puts Nadella in the pantheon of Bezos–Cook–Page–Zuckerberg.

Empathy and soft skills have often been derided in the cutthroat bureaucracies of corporate America. “Suck it up” has been the edict to aspiring masters of the universe; generosity of spirit and openness have often taken a backseat to aggressiveness and subterfuge. Which is what makes Nadella’s ascension so refreshing. His playbook includes these five lessons:

1. Showing Weakness Is A Strength.

Rather than walking tall and carrying a big stick, Nadella has demonstrated confidence and authority through his willingness to admit fault. A few months into his tenure, he made a major faux pas at a conference for women engineers that spawned a wave of criticism. He owned the mistake and admitted to biases that he hadn’t realized. The episode ended up building his credibility in the long run.

2. Listen And Learn.

Nadella describes working for Bill Gates in uncompromising terms: “Bill’s not the kind of guy who walks into your office and says, ‘Hey, great job.’ It’s like, ‘Let me start by telling you the 20 things that are wrong with you today.’ ” Nadella’s style is to emphasize what’s been done right. He starts each senior leadership meeting with a segment called “Researcher of the Amazing,” showcasing something inspiring at the company.


3. Patience And Urgency Can Coexist.

Nadella says Microsoft’s cultural evolution is an ongoing process. But that hasn’t prevented him from acting boldly—whether shutting down the mobile phone business and eliminating 20,000 jobs or buying LinkedIn.

4. People Can Grow.

Nadella recruited new talent into the company, and he has emphasized the importance of an outsider’s perspective. But he has put even more focus on unleashing potential within the ranks. He’s relied on instilling a “growth mind-set,” a concept borrowed from Stanford professor Carol Dweck. He sees re­sis­­tance to change as a behavior rather than a fixed personality trait.

5. Empathy Is A Tool.

Some may look at Nadella’s efforts and say, “All he needed to succeed was to not be a jerk.” That underestimates the nuance of what effective empathy requires. Putting yourself in someone else’s place is a powerful way to alter behavior and outcomes. (Our 2017 Innovation by Design Awards honorees demonstrate this ability.)

Admiration and encouragement, high expectations, and uncompromising standards: A skillful manager uses all of these to get the best out
of us. I have learned that from all my bosses, and from Nadella, too. As leaders, colleagues, employees, and consumers, we are senders and recipients of myriad messages, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and subconscious. In the best case, we take time periodically to step back and assess our actions—and those of others—to appreciate the long-term implications. Only then can we experience the life, the career, and the impact that we want most.

About the author

Robert Safian is the editor and managing director of The Flux Group. From 2007 through 2017, Safian oversaw Fast Company’s print, digital and live-events content, as well as its brand management and business operations