Empathy is a superpower

Empathy Definition

I had an epiphany earlier this year…

I’ve always considered myself a walking, talking case study in “imposter’s syndrome.” How could I not be? I’ve joined entrepreneurial organizations and generally attempted to surround myself with brilliant, successful people who will push me to be better.

But sometimes, it’s tough not to just see that last part: that they’re better, and I’m somehow not up to snuff.

I attended an entrepreneurial retreat this past summer, and one particular discussion led me down the road to my eventual epiphany.

Our keynote speaker, Peter Sheahan, brought up the topic of getting the most from your team. Hands shot up left and right with people talking about all the various levers they pull to a light a fire under their employees. Response after response featured talented, well-respected, and successful business leaders sharing their no-nonsense approach to management.

I chose to join the conversation largely out of frustration. The approaches I heard were all so antithetical to who I am, and how I lead that I thought my self-diagnosis of having “imposter’s syndrome” might be wrong. In that moment, I theorized I might just actually be an imposter.

So, I raised my hand and reframed the conversation: What if we focused less on lighting a fire under our people, and more on lighting a fire in our people?

There was some confusion, and I admit my wording did sound like I was suggesting internal combustion as the path toward employee excellence. But, my more eloquent point was that lighting a fire under someone will burn them 100% of the time, and leave you with a hollow, charred shell of the employee you want on your team.

But, lighting a fire in someone? Unlocking their true potential, their passions, and their purpose? That is a flame that will never be extinguished, and something that will build you a team that can take you straight to the success you’ve always wanted.

And yet, I’d say my words were met with trepidation at best.

Why? Simply put, it’s because everything we’re taught about building businesses and managing teams make it seem as though being a kind and empathetic leader is a weakness. We’re told to celebrate that cold, calculating nature of the wildly successful business titans. After all, no one cares if Steve Jobs was a dick to his people, because he gave us the iPhone!

But, that’s not me. And, as I looked around a room of folks who gravitate more to that hard nosed style, I realized: Empathy is my greatest superpower, not my greatest weakness.

I have the ability and the desire to put myself in the shoes of the folks who I’m lucky enough to have working for me. I do everything in my power to understand them, their backgrounds, and what they want out of life. I talk to them about their families, their wins, their setbacks, and the amazing lives and hidden talents they nurture outside the office. If you want to lead your people you have to know your people.

So, in a few minutes this past summer I went from looking around a room of entrepreneurs and lamenting all the things they supposedly did better than me, to realizing that I have a depth of talent and skill that they will never possess. And frankly, I wouldn’t trade my superpowers for theirs.

As an entrepreneur, you’re going to read a lot of books. You’re going to attend networking events and speakers. Heck, you might even join groups like Entrepreneurs’ Organization like I did. But, I encourage you to take everything you see and hear with a big grain of salt. Do what works best for you, and for your organization, and never let anyone tell you that you have to fundamentally change who you are in order to have success.

This epiphany has brought me great contentment, and I hope discovering your superpower brings you the same soon.

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