Counselor Stefani Hadley: 5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Build meaningful connections with staff and outside providers.

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is increasingly recognized as a pivotal leadership trait. In an ever-evolving business landscape, leaders who exhibit genuine empathy are better equipped to connect, inspire, and drive their teams towards success. But how exactly does empathy shape leadership dynamics? How can it be harnessed to foster stronger relationships, improved decision-making, and a more inclusive work environment? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Stefani Hadley, LMFT.

Stefani, a former journalist turned counselor, believes in uncovering each person’s unique gift to find purpose. With a master’s in counseling and a focus on forensic psychology since 2007, she specializes in CBT and TF-CBT. Stefani works with at-risk populations, including incarcerated or probationary teens and adults, as well as survivors of violence and trauma. Her gift lies in seeing people for who they truly are and guiding them to embrace their uniqueness for a better life. Known for transparency, genuineness, and directness, Stefani builds trust with clients, fostering success and happiness.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about empathy, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I have always been an observer with an innate instinct about people. As a journalist, I had the opportunity to learn about and convey my surroundings to entertain and enlighten the community. After a difficult divorce, I realized that reporting would not be a sustainable career for a mother of two young girls, so I decided to utilize my gifts to help others to find their best selves. Being a direct personality, I landed myself in a traineeship at a police department and quickly realized that at risk populations were not only underserved but greatly misunderstood. Having a father who broke a cycle of violence and abuse in his own family, I felt drawn to helping others break similar cycles and live positive and loving lives.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I had a client who had recently been released from prison and was attempting to get custody of his young daughter, who was living in a harmful environment. Although he had been given multiple resources, he was unable to navigate them with limited help and anger issues that were difficult for him to control. After sitting with him and truly hearing his frustrations, I was able to calm him down and get him a person who would step up and help. What he needed was simple- someone to listen and understand him as a father and not a criminal. He continues to stay in touch with me years later, proof that a little bit of empathy and support can make an enormous difference in a person’s life.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Open Mind Health embraces people from all walks of life and takes into account their unique experiences. Our intake process is more culturally aware than traditional companies and furthermore client’s ahave the freedom to explore their notes and files in the spirit of transparency.

My interview process with Open Mind Health was an extremely positive experience and I instantly felt a connection to the founder and her story about why she started a company that goes the extra mile to embrace each client’s unique journey. The genuine curiosity she had about me and my experiences was impressive and showed me how vital it was for this company to hire people who embrace that same mission. After the hour, I felt I found a new home.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Humility-My intake coordinator came tome and told me that she was unsure about a client in an intake who had potential mental health issues that she did not understand. I offered to complete the intake and also asked her to schedule me for any intakes that she felt uncomfortable with,

Respect- I respect opinions and welcome criticism about me if that is warranted. I have provided the information for other supervisors that will provide support if I cannot or if there are issues about me as a leader that staff may want to discuss.

Inclusion-I am open to staff that has lived experience and can speak to how that can benefit our clients, staff and community.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

In one of my roles, I worked very closely with probation officers who would refer defendants to counseling services. The relationship with these officers was vital to our program and I had built a solid rapport, even friendships, with most of the officers. On one occasion, one of my interns came to my office crying, as an established probation officer who I did not know was extremely disrespectful and condescending to her during a meeting regarding a client. Although my upper management may not approve, I called the officer and had a discussion with him regarding the way in which I expect my staff to be treated. I relayed that his behavior was unacceptable and I further let him know that if it were to happen again, I would contact his superior without question. I made this phone call with my intern sitting next to me so that she could hear exactly what I said. Fortunately, the conversation did not leave the three of us and my intern felt protected and validated. She went on to become a manager herself and was able to find her voice with some encouragement. I hear that she protects her staff with the same genuine intent and care.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define empathy in a leadership context, and why do you believe it’s a vital trait for leaders to possess in today’s work environment?

As a leader, empathy is crucial in cultivating an environment that creates safety and encourages both personal and professional growth. Empathy allows us as leaders to have insight into potential burnout as well as opens our minds to new ideas and see our staff as individuals with unique gifts. When people are seen and appreciated, they want to do their best. Lastly, an empathic leader is a humble one, and is more likely to incorporate fresh ideas and include the team in decision making that can create a stronger company overall.

Can you share a personal experience where showing empathy as a leader significantly impacted a situation or relationship in your organization?

I consistently make sure that everyone on our team has a voice and is acknowledged for their contributions. I often allow creative freedom when creating workshops and encourage staff to try their ideas. While running clinical groups, I have clients sit at a round table with me included, to show that we are equal as human beings, and have strained staff to do the same. Through leading by example, I have a staff that not only is not afraid to ask for help or contribute their ideas, but a team that leans on and supports each other.

How do empathetic leaders strike a balance between understanding their team’s feelings and making tough decisions that might not be universally popular?

There are times that tough decisions must be made in the workplace and unfortunately, feelings do not have a vote. What’s important is to acknowledge those feelings in an open dialogue and address them in a way that the team feels heard and understood. Making tough decisions that may not be popular can also foster respect from the team and create an overall feeling of safety.

How would you differentiate between empathy and sympathy in leadership? Why is it important for leaders to distinguish between the two?

In my opinion, sympathy is a feeling and empathy is an action. Sympathy can often lead to unconscious favoritism, hasty decision making, creating an unstable work environment. Empathy fosters understanding, and understanding is clarifying. This leads to more productive and long-term outcomes.

What are some practical strategies or exercises that leaders can employ to cultivate and enhance their empathetic skills?

Jump in and help with jobs or tasks that may be below your paygrade. This can serve as a reminder of our staff’s hard work.

Cross train employees when possible to foster appreciation of one another.

Express appreciation verbally when warranted, select an employee of the month and provide a small gift if possible.

Do small things that foster team building such as a quarterly luncheon or outing.

Check in frequently with staff to ask about challenges, wants needs.

Provide trainings when possible and attend them yourself.

Always consider the impact of your decisions.

How can empathy help leaders navigate the complexities of leading diverse teams and ensure inclusivity?

In a world that traditionally denounces that which is different, the ability to put ourselves in another person’s shoes is key in embracing diversity. The act of simply listening with an open mind and with genuine interest can allow us a much broader appreciation of others and by example, encourage team members to do the same.

Based on your experience and research, can you please share “5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

1 . Promote consideration of different viewpoints.

2 . Build meaningful connections with staff and outside providers.

3 . Promote growth from within the company and retain valuable staff.

4 . Obtain a greater appreciation of team members’ contribution.

5 . Cultivate a safe work environment that encourages success.

Are there potential pitfalls or challenges associated with being an empathetic leader? How can these be addressed?

At times staff may see you as a friend and may adjust their expectations accordingly. Holding boundaries while being familiar, transparent and open will foster realistic expectations and promote safety. While it would be nice to have both, as a leader, it is more important to be respected than to be liked. People will not always like what you do, but they must respect why you do it.

Off-topic, but I’m curious. As someone steering the ship, what thoughts or concerns often keep you awake at night? How do those thoughts influence your daily decision-making process?

In a world that is constantly changing, I often worry about who will be making the decisions that are above me and how I am going to protect my staff and maintain the integrity of the work that I do with passion and intent. I try not to allow these worries to affect my daily decision making and simply work toward embracing change when it comes. I always make sure that my responses are valid and I continue to consider all those effected and the consequences that will come with those choices.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I have thought about this in length. In working with underserved populations for many years, I have seen my share of people who not only deserve but require a voice. Children are amongst the most innocent, and those caught up in the system are at the highest risk for depression, substance abuse and homelessness. Particularly transitional foster youth, who at age 18 are still children.

Every child deserves a safe place to call home, however many do not. While some find incredible foster parents, many do not. Upon turning 18, many are cast out and left to fend for themselves, often helpess and without the proper skills to succeed.

I would move to not only advocate for foster youth to transition at an older age (21) but also foresee creating residential homes for transitional foster youth that would include case management, counseling and job training.

How can our readers further follow you online?

I am working o a website…TBD

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.