Selecting Empathic Leaders: 4 Qualities to Seek

In an era of disruption, when top administrators face intense scrutiny, key characteristics can foster resilience and model traits that reflect the core of university life, writes Michael Patullo.

September 1, 2022
Illustration of a large hand holding two figures in its palm; the two figures are speaking to the much larger person, illustrating the concept of students sharing concerns with an administrator.
(Yossakorn Kaewwannarat/istock/getty images plus)

It’s no secret that higher education leaders are announcing their departures at quite a clip this year. This churn in the labor market for top administrators is disruptive and, in many cases, reflects an increasing level of burnout—accelerated by the physical and mental toll exacted by the pandemic. But it also comes with some opportunities. For instance, this period of turnover could be a chance for colleges and universities to recruit leaders from groups that have been traditionally underrepresented within academe. New executives with fresh ways of thinking might also help spur innovation and re-energize campus communities.

But as the pressures and complexities that come with top administrative jobs continue to expand, so does the list of essential skills and qualities to look for in a leader. It seems as though selecting the right person is harder—and perhaps more consequential—than ever before.

Recognizing this, some search committees have responded by prioritizing candidates with experience in change management, data-driven decision-making and fiscal stewardship. Others have gone so far as to require candidates to submit to physical and psychological examinations as a way to protect the institution’s “investment.”

One important quality, though, is too often glossed over: empathy.

Sure, position descriptions identify emotional intelligence, cross-cultural competency and interpersonal skills as essential for successful leaders. But when it comes down to actually selecting someone, empathic leadership can be hard to define—and even harder to tease out in the search process.

Why is empathic leadership important? In an era when leaders face intense scrutiny—from the public, political leaders, alumni and parents, and even from within their own institutions—empathic leaders are able to self-reflect, be present, listen actively, identify and act on their emotions, and withhold judgment. These qualities can foster resilience and longevity, especially during a time of disruption. Moreover, by displaying empathy, leaders model qualities that are at the very core of university life: civility, authenticity and openness to vigorous debate.

I’ve spent more than a decade working closely with top university administrators. Here are four specific traits I’ve observed that can help hiring committees identify empathic leaders. (Spoiler alert: they can also be used as guideposts for those currently in leadership positions seeking to embrace empathic leadership.)

No. 1: Empathic leaders can help stakeholders internalize trade-offs when faced with complex decisions. No executive can avoid choosing between less-than-ideal options—whether to increase tuition or furlough staff to close a budget gap; whether to pursue a controversial building project or preserve town-gown relations; whether to remove a statue of a racist historical figure and alienate one segment of your alumni base or let it stand and alienate another.

When confronting such tough calls, some leaders retreat into their own heads—or worse, they insult the intelligence of the people under their charge by providing only selective details. Instead, they should seek to invite the community into their thinking. While committees are often appointed to deliberate and provide recommendations, empathic leaders can go further by making three things clear to their constituents: 1) that, among the potential options, no easy or obvious choice exists, 2) that there is a process and/or clearly established criteria in place to weigh options and make a decision, and 3) that the ultimate decision will be one that will be fair, principled and transparent, even though some people may disagree.

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No. 2: Empathic leaders can speak personally, not just institutionally. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Carol Christ, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, was “compelled by the magnitude and meaning of [the] decision … to share [her] own perspectives.” Careful of the boundary between institutional and individual speech, Christ spoke with power and intimacy, calling the decision’s impact “profoundly personal, alarming and distressing.” She went on to describe the “unimaginable” feeling that the same freedoms she has enjoyed “will not be shared by [her] granddaughters.”

What is striking about Christ’s approach is that, rather than reiterating institutional values in the abstract, it provides a window into her humanity. Sure, reasonable community members could disagree with her position on abortion rights, but it is much more difficult to argue with the validity of her personal experiences. And in choosing to speak openly, she exemplified vulnerability and free expression—two values that are essential to empathic leadership and civil discourse.

No. 3: Empathic leaders can admit they’re wrong, even if they don’t actually think they bear full responsibility. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a dean I worked with shared an honest message with the student body: she knew it was a challenging time, but the administration was doing its best to navigate the uncertainty, even if it hadn’t always gotten things right. The backlash was swift. Students felt unheard, even dismissed, at a time when they needed support more than ever.

Instead of doubling down on her original position, the dean acknowledged that her message missed the mark—even if she continued to believe in the merit of its central premise. She went to students and asked for their help in better understanding the kinds of support they needed. In that case, the dean recognized the value of meeting students where they were. Although she believed fervently in the diligence and hard work of her team in responding to the pandemic, she also understood that students needed to hear more about how the institution was centering their needs and well-being. For empathic leaders, ceding some ground doesn’t mean compromising their core beliefs or principles. It shows stakeholders that they care, that they can pivot and that they are capable of seeing multiple sides of a complex issue.

No. 4: Empathic leaders can hear the message beneath the noise. Many college and university leaders have a regular practice of holding town-hall meetings with students. They are rarely convivial affairs, as student (and sometimes faculty) activists seize the opportunity to share their concerns and demands on the record with the people in charge. In one particularly heated meeting that I attended at an institution some years ago, a student confronted a top administrator and accused him of enabling international human rights violations by pursuing an international branch campus expansion. Rather than hearing the student, the administrator interrupted and interrogated her as if she were a litigator arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court. As you might imagine, this only inflamed the already simmering tensions between the university administration and the student body.

In that situation, the executive was unable to understand the point that the student was trying to get across because he was so consumed by defending his signature initiative. Empathic leaders, by contrast, can draw a distinction between the message and its inartful—even vitriolic—delivery. They take time to reflect on criticism, even if it’s not constructive, rather than dismiss it. They can defuse tensions by identifying the driving forces behind strong and opposing perspectives and engaging with them.

When searching for new leaders, choosing those who display empathy doesn’t have to come at the expense of other important personal characteristics and professional skills. Each institution must examine its needs and consider how to prioritize them. But, no matter the order of priority, seeking out these traits among candidates will help identify individuals who are not only empathic but who can use their empathy for the benefit of the institution.

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Michael Patullo is an associate dean at Columbia Law School in New York.


Michael Patullo

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