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  • Writer's pictureLeslie Friedel

Does empathy get in the way of leadership?

Does empathy get in the way of leadership? In today's #LEADSbyExample column, DeKalb LEADS cohort member, Leslie Friedel, shares her perspective on why being an empathetic leader IS the way.

I have always considered myself an emphatic person. I have been drawn to people when they are experiencing the most difficult times of their lives. I often viewed myself as being the person that didn’t know what to say when someone was facing something life changing – like losing a job, facing the end of a relationship or even after experiencing the death of a loved one. I saw this lack of words I was experiencing as a failure or inadequacy many times. I felt the weight of the silence. It was as if I was worthless to this person in the exact moment they needed me most. It took me many years and a lot of self-reflection to know what this feeling was - it was empathy. I lost myself in the feeling and emotions this person was also feeling. I was paralyzed by the lack of assistance or healing I could provide in that very moment, so I stayed silent and joined them in their pain.

Empathy by definition is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

I translate this into, “I see you and I feel you”.

I didn’t realize during those times of feeling inadequate in my words, that it would also become one of my greatest strengths. I can walk into an uncertain situation and express my understanding without saying one word. I can hug someone, cry with someone or smile at someone without speaking a word.

As a CEO of a nonprofit organization that provides hospice, palliative, and grief support, I am walking alongside of people during their darkest most painful moments of their lives. No words, no matter how profound, can take away the deep pain these people are feeling.

I am fortunate to be surrounded and supported by an entire team of people that do empathy well. In feeling so deeply and caring for other humans so much, our team depletes their tanks quickly and are not always the best at refilling. Connection is the antidote to burnout. As a leader, I have spent years working on employee engagement, wage studies and strategies to retain staff. The one constant that rises to the top is that relationships matter. People not only need to be connected to the organization’s mission, but also those working alongside them. My role in leadership is to focus on being an empathetic leader and building upon relationships with my team and board of directors. It is impossible to “leave your personal life at the door”, we are all human and have pressure coming at us from all angles. Empathy, compassion, and acceptance of an entire human no matter how messy they are will change our world.

Leslie Friedel


Stillwater Hospice

DeKalb LEADS Class of ’22

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