Sue Musson of Firecracker Leadership: 5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Broadens your understanding and knowledge. Curiosity and empathetic listening are your two biggest assets in helping you, as a leader, to learn what is going on and the options available to you to solve problems. As the chair of several NHS trusts, I was always careful to recruit executive and non-executive directors who possessed technical ability as well as a diversity of views, experiences and backgrounds. I would frequently ask colleagues for advice or to share their take on a problem from their perspective. Inevitably, this led to identifying new and better options for next steps. I frequently found myself saying, “I never thought of it like that. That’s a great help”.

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 Sue Musson.

Sue Musson achieved her first board-level leadership role at the age of twenty-seven. As a seasoned leader with 30 years of experience in senior executive and non-executive roles, she has led numerous organisations, including her own successful businesses under the Firecracker brand. Her experience of leadership spans the full gamut of highs and lows, which she recounts with honesty, insight and humour.

Sue has had the honour of serving for fifteen years as a non-executive director and chair of five of the UK’s most significant healthcare organisations. She regularly chairs panels to appoint UK judges.

In her new book, Firecracker Leadership, Sue has drawn upon her extensive leadership experience to create a practical, “how to” toolkit to inform, reassure and challenge readers looking to supercharge their leadership skillset. Delving into the real-life challenges faced by leaders, this guide offers compelling case studies that reinforce the importance of what Sue coins “The Firecracker Leadership Framework”.

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?

My first job as a 14-year-old was working in a hospital gift shop. Throughout my student years, I went on to such glamorous occupations as chambermaid in a bed and breakfast on Nantucket Island, supermarket checkout cashier, and waitress. These roles were not destined to be my future career calling, but they taught me fundamental lessons that have shaped my values such as the importance of hard work, of serving others and of treating everyone with respect and courtesy.

I achieved a first in history from Columbia University. This was not a technical education, but it did equip me with a love of learning, self-belief and highly developed skills in researching and writing. These have been central to every role I have held in my long career.

Using these skills, I became a policy adviser and then a management consultant working with clients throughout the UK and the European Union. I went on to develop a career in several business service organisations which gave me my first board-level roles, initially in strategy and then in operational delivery. All of my executive roles gave me access to fantastic role models and opportunities to develop my leadership skills.

Eventually, I went on to establish my own successful businesses including a management consultancy firm and several property businesses. Following my son’s recovery from a life-threatening illness, I wanted to bring my skills to support the work of the National Health Service (NHS). This led to a 15-year commitment to public service as a non-executive director and chairman in five NHS organisations. For the last 12 years, I have also served as a panel chair for the Judicial Appointments Commission, assessing individuals who apply to become judges.

I love the variety that my career path has offered. As someone interested in continuous learning and being of service to others, I’ve had a wonderful range of experiences.

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

I think that would be hosting the Prince and Princess of Wales for the best part of a day when they officially opened the new hospital of the NHS trust I was chairing. They were absolutely wonderful — charming, warm, interested and so engaging. This was their first public engagement after the publication of Prince Harry’s book, Spare, so there was a huge amount of media interest.

Their composure was remarkable given the crowds and the forensic scrutiny they encounter everywhere they go and the particular circumstances on that occasion. I was so impressed with how kind and attentive they were to the scores of people they met that day and how interested and well-informed they were. Their easy manner was a master class in how to connect with people and make others feel special.

It was such a privilege to escort them, and I was thrilled to receive a goodbye hug from the Princess. I really treasure a photo taken with them at the end of their visit and the gracious letter I received a few days later. Their visit is the event that seems to spark the most interest from others as well as some odd questions like: what does the Princess’s hair smell like?!

I cannot answer that particular question, but I can say I thought they were both absolutely wonderful. I wish the Princess a speedy recovery. Who could fail to be moved by her amazing candour and courage in talking about her health recently.

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

When I founded my first business, I thought long and hard about the right name and brand. I settled on Firecracker Projects because I thought the name conveyed something dynamic, eye-catching, fun and energetic. Something, in short, that makes you look up and go, “Ooooh, ahhhh!”

In all my assignments, I try to bring that firecracker energy. This means I focus on understanding what my clients want and need and then how I can meet those needs with insight, dynamism and creativity. This approach attracts like-minded colleagues and clients and differentiates my company from other consultancies.

I remember being booked as a speaker at a national conference. At the end of the final session, I was approached by a number of delegates who wanted to chat.

One delegate walked up with a big grin and said, “As soon as I heard you speak, I knew I needed to be in your network.” We discovered that we were kindred spirits, sharing the same philosophy about delivering thoughtful and creative solutions for clients. He became an associate in my business, and we went on to win a government contract to support ethnic minority entrepreneurs and small businesses which was a complete joy to deliver.

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?

My leadership philosophy is explained in my book, Firecracker Leadership. In summary, great leaders have head (brainpower), hands (technical) and heart (emotional intelligence) skills in abundance and in balance. For me personally, this translates into the three powerhouse traits of being an expert in analysis, communication and gratitude.

My ‘head’ trait is excelling at analysis. I am a self-confessed nerd who just loves analysing disparate information to identify patterns and frame solutions. I recall a time in my last NHS chair role when we were justifiably concerned about the number of vacancies in clinical roles. This led to a herculean effort by HR colleagues to ramp up recruitment activity for healthcare assistants and nurses. This was working well, but, when I triangulated all the data across our monthly board pack, it became clear that while recruitment was up generally, there were also key areas of churn with the rate of departures alarmingly exceeding the rate of new appointments. Identifying the numbers involved triggered more questions about why staff were leaving, particularly so soon after having been recruited. This helped with identifying effective solutions. Having curiosity and a hunger to know ‘why’ is really important in making sense of complex, often conflicting information.

My ‘hands’ trait is being an effective communicator. I work hard to prepare my messages and to express them clearly. In the example above, I labelled the problem as the leaky bucket risk. This provided a practical way to frame the problem and the risk and created a mental picture for all the members of the board. I noticed that the analogy became widely used and that various actions were described as solutions to plug different holes in the leaky bucket. Expressing information through stories and creating imagery is the essence of effective communication.

My ‘heart’ trait would be gratitude. Throughout my career, I have genuinely valued and appreciated the contribution of my colleagues. Expressing thanks and appreciation of others has always come naturally to me, and I know this has been fundamental in attracting and retaining talent. A smart leader knows they do not have to be personally brilliant at everything themselves, but what they must do is attract others who have outstanding abilities to cover all the skills that are needed. Being generous in shining the spotlight on others and publicly celebrating their excellence is so important in creating a positive, high achieving culture. I have been fortunate to work with committed, loyal, talented colleagues. When I left my last role, I was very touched to hear how many of my board colleagues had joined the organisation because they wanted to work with me. That made me feel great.

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.

During the pandemic, I was leading one of the largest NHS trusts in the country based in Liverpool, where the poor underlying health of the population meant the impact of the virus was enormous. There were many difficult decisions that had to be made throughout those frightening, early days before we had vaccines and effective treatments, particularly in providing a safe working environment for the 14,000 trust employees.

Early on, we were running very low on some of the personal protective equipment (PPE) that was so vital to keeping staff safe. We had a difficult decision to make around following national procurement rules or paying more to secure supplies. We discussed the issues in the board and quickly decided that putting staff safety first was the right thing to do. I am generally a compliant soul when it comes to following the rule book, particularly in leading a public service, but in that instance, it was clearly preferable to be in trouble for overspending on PPE than to risk the physical and psychological safety of staff who were caring for others at such a fraught time.

At the same time, my son was working in a busy A&E department in another hospital, and I remember asking him about PPE. It was very distressing as his mum to hear that plastic goggles, a loose surgical mask and a plastic pinny were all that was between him and exposure to a deadly virus. That really brought home to me the significant responsibility involved in making good decisions that put safety first.

I guess the key lessons for me would be to trust your gut and honour your values. If you say that safety is your top priority, you have to mean it. I also learned to embrace the saying that it is better to ask for forgiveness than permission. Sometimes you have to do what you know to be the right thing even if it breaks a rule. I like to think ‘guilty with a good reason’ is a reasonable defence!

I would have to say that the pandemic represented the biggest test that I have faced in 30 years of leadership experience, particularly in terms of maintaining personal resilience. Interestingly, the technical demands of leading a complex NHS organisation at that time were simplified in that a lot of the usual noise was stripped away, and we were able to focus on a smaller number of key priorities.

That is one of the main differences in leadership in a commercial as opposed to a public sector organisation that I would highlight. The first provides the luxury of defining a manageable number of priorities whereas the latter, in my experience, is always beset by too many people labelling too many things a priority. In those circumstances — when everything is a priority — in reality, nothing is a priority; it requires real clarity of thought to make sense of the muddle and to avoid passing on impossible requirements. Overloading people with an unachievable task is a sure-fire way to undermine morale and commitment.

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?

Empathy is the ability to understand and relate to others’ feelings and experiences. It is the foundation of good people skills and emotional intelligence. As a leader, if you cannot empathise, you quite simply have no hope of building bonds of trust, rapport and mutual respect with people you rely on either as colleagues or customers.

For a leader, expressing empathy is a powerful precursor to finding a solution. Conveying your understanding of the difficulties others are facing helps to segue toward agreeing next steps and hopefully finding a resolution.

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

One of the toughest experiences any leader can go through is making people redundant. I vividly recall the first time I had to undertake this task. I was a management team member in a business that was forced to restructure following changes to various contracts. All told, nearly 1000 people were affected by the changes in some way, and most of the redundancies were to fall within my business unit.

Throughout the process, I was in constant communication with all the staff in the business unit, keeping them informed and offering them every opportunity to ask questions. I made sure that decision-making criteria were fully explained and that there was clarity about what information would be taken into account. This meant every individual knew what would be happening and could feel confident that decisions would be made transparently, fairly and consistently.

My HR director colleague offered to handle the final meetings with all staff who were being made redundant. It was kind of her to offer me a pass to avoid a series of difficult meetings, but I insisted on being in every meeting, whether it was to deliver good or bad news.

To prepare, I thought carefully about the golden rule and asked myself: if the situation were reversed, how would I wish to receive this message? I considered for each individual: if that were me, what would I be feeling and thinking about? Are there any specific concerns I might have that could be addressed? That really helped me empathise with each person’s situation and helped with framing and personalising the support available to help them navigate the situation.

I was surprised and very touched to be thanked for the way I had handled the process by all the individuals who lost their jobs. At that stage of my career, it was one of the most difficult things I had ever done so it meant a lot to me that those on the receiving end of bad news were so generous and understanding.

Over the years, I have had to hold many similar meetings with individuals, but I have never lost sight of the key role empathy plays in communicating difficult messages with compassion and understanding.

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

It’s a great question. I think the answer lies in the secret of my Firecracker Leadership Framework in having head, hands and heart skills in abundance and in balance.

Applying your ‘head’ skills to analyse all the available information and to set a clear rationale for the decision is vital as a first step. Then, use your ‘hands’ or technical skills to communicate the decision, making sure that the message contains the ‘heart’ qualities of integrity, honesty, compassion and empathy.

Being an empathetic leader does not mean dodging difficult decisions or bowing to a majority view. Instead, it means taking time and care to formulate the reasons for the decision and then to express those reasons clearly and with sensitivity and understanding as to the impact on others.

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

I once heard a speaker describe the difference between empathy and sympathy with reference to a story. He said, imagine your friend has fallen into a deep pit and cannot get out. Sympathy is climbing down next to him and saying you know exactly what it feels like to be down a deep hole with no way out. Empathy is telling your friend that you see he is in a bad spot, you understand how frightened he is and you are going to get a rope to help him climb out of the pit.

The key difference is that sympathy is sharing the feelings of others and stopping there. Empathy in leadership is about understanding the feelings and experiences of others and then offering appropriate help and support to move forward.

Depending on the situation, it does take insight and skillful handling to know how to convey understanding and then when the time is right to move into solution mode. Done too quickly or with insufficient care, this can really backfire with people feeling rushed or actually misunderstood.

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

A huge part of empathetic communication is listening well. As a child, I was told I had one mouth and two ears and was meant to use them in that proportion. I think that is good advice for any leader seeking to become more empathetic.

As well as active listening, expressing curiosity is such a good way to signal interest and a desire to understand. Asking others about how they are and what they are feeling is a great way to indicate you want to understand their situation.

Countless times I have heard leaders express frustration when a colleague’s performance has dipped. In my experience it is always best to tread carefully and to avoid making assumptions about why this has happened. Often work performance suffers when there are personal issues such as illness, financial pressure or relationship problems that spill over into work life.

The best approach is to arrange a coffee or an informal meeting with the individual and to say something like, “I noticed that last month’s (insert relevant performance indicator) results were unusual for you. Is everything ok?” This is usually enough to encourage an open discussion. Often when people are struggling, they are not quite sure how to raise that. Finding a non-judgmental way of signalling that you have noticed all is not well and that you are inviting an open conversation can come as a relief.

An effective and empathetic leader will also take care not to leap in with a Mr Fixit answer. When someone has revealed they are suffering with a problem or a difficult situation, it’s best to reflect back that you have heard them and understand how they are feeling.

It may be enough initially to thank them for sharing their situation with you and signalling that you are going to let that information percolate for a while. You can then go back to them and say you have been reflecting on their situation and have some thoughts that might be helpful and would they like to hear what those ideas are.

Alternatively, if you have genuine personal experience of overcoming whatever they are facing, it can be really helpful to summarise with three points:

  1. I understand how you feel: you have told me about xyz and how it is affecting you.
  2. I felt the same way: I went through a similar experience when xyz happened and I felt just as you are feeling now.
  3. What I found helped was: here you can set out what you did to overcome the problem if the solutions you applied are equally applicable to the other person’s problem.

As a leader, you need to make sure there is a pragmatic way forward, but you must not skip over the important steps of genuine listening to make sure you have a full understanding before you map out solutions.

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

It is impossible for one individual to have personally experienced every situation that may face diverse team members. However, an empathetic leader can seek to understand others’ experiences and feelings and, by demonstrating a genuine interest, can build a welcoming environment where all members feel included and understood.

This is such an important goal if you want to build and sustain a high-performing team of diverse talents, perspectives and backgrounds.

I was recently interviewing judges. One of the competency requirements for the senior role was to show an awareness of the importance of diversity, to take an anti-discriminatory approach and to demonstrate sensitivity to the needs of others.

This is a very good summary of what an empathetic leader needs to demonstrate to make others — regardless of their background — feel valued, respected and a sense of belonging.

It was very interesting to hear the range of examples that the judicial candidates provided to demonstrate they possessed this ability. Some of the answers were distinctly underwhelming, but one really stood out. The candidate described acting in a case for a 14-year-old Romany child who was taken into care. Her young client had been married at age 11 and was the mother of two children who had also been taken into care.

The candidate had no personal experience of her client’s culture or life experiences, but described very well how background research, sensitive questioning and empathetic discussions with members of the community had helped to build an understanding of Romany parenting culture that enabled effective representation of her client’s needs.

That is a good formula for approaching unfamiliar territory where personal experience is absent, but there is a genuine desire to create a welcoming and supportive environment for all.

One note of caution is necessary. I have noticed a recent leadership trend to replace a sincere interest in understanding with empty gestures and virtue signalling. These are ego-driven practices that others find very alienating and are best avoided.

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 . Fosters trust within the organisation. Your colleagues feel safer when they know their leader’s default setting is one of seeking to understand rather than to blame. When you demonstrate empathy at times of stress or pressure, your teams will know they can trust you and will feel more confident in being open, particularly when there are problems. In my book, I describe a difficult first day as an operational leader when I was told by a very nervous finance director of a significant problem with the business’s largest contract. Because I was calm and focused on understanding the issue without indulging in panic or assigning blame, it set a positive route to finding a solution. Coming through that early test set a strong foundation of trust, camaraderie and loyalty that continued throughout my tenure.

2 . Strengthens team relationships. An effective leader knows that all behaviours are contagious. This is why it is so important to role model the positive behaviours that you wish to see others adopt. As the leader, if you role model active listening, curiosity and interest in others’ views and experiences, your approach will be replicated. Similarly, if you demonstrate negative behaviours of impatience, panic and indifference, you can expect your colleagues to do the same. It is a big responsibility, but making sure you are role-modelling positive behaviours will repay you when you see the improved levels of rapport and collegiate working that take hold as a result. Throughout the pandemic, I witnessed a remarkable level of supportive teamwork across the NHS trust I was chairing. It was so interesting to see the barriers between different clinical and non-clinical teams melt away as leaders demonstrated the importance of working together and valuing all perspectives in addressing a huge challenge.

3 . Improves employee engagement. Employee engagement is fundamental to building a positive culture that attracts and retains talented people. I was fortunate to work with a gifted HR director and organisational development team who understood this through and through. They were able to give leaders throughout the organisation — including me — expert advice on how to improve employee engagement. In short, providing genuine opportunities for employees to contribute their views was important, but what was really a game changer was communicating back to staff that their responses had been heard, their views were valued and that improvement actions were implemented. This resulted in a significant increase in participation in workplace surveys, learning activity and culture development and showed improved staff satisfaction and retention.

4 . Broadens your understanding and knowledge. Curiosity and empathetic listening are your two biggest assets in helping you, as a leader, to learn what is going on and the options available to you to solve problems. As the chair of several NHS trusts, I was always careful to recruit executive and non-executive directors who possessed technical ability as well as a diversity of views, experiences and backgrounds. I would frequently ask colleagues for advice or to share their take on a problem from their perspective. Inevitably, this led to identifying new and better options for next steps. I frequently found myself saying, “I never thought of it like that. That’s a great help”.

5 . Makes you more relatable. Your credibility and impact as a leader are enhanced when — at appropriate junctures — you demonstrate empathy. I remember chairing my first board meeting as the new chair of a hospital trust. It was winter, and the operational report was especially grim, reflecting a big winter surge of demand amid workforce gaps and fatigue. The chief operating officer described being called in at 2am and spending the whole of the next day and evening at the hospital, trying to resolve the operational challenges. When she had given her report, I asked how she was and how she was managing the pressures personally. I also apologised that she had been in that situation. This was just an instinctive response on hearing her report, but several members of the board later told me that this basic demonstration of empathy and concern for a new colleague had helped me make a positive first impression.

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

Yes, definitely. Going back to my head, hands, heart leadership framework, there are real risks for the leader who has a surfeit of ‘heart’ qualities. The overly empathetic leader’s skills are out of balance, and this can cause great difficulties for them and their team members.

These leaders have a wealth of compassion and understanding, but they are often reluctant to inject urgency, a clear direction or high expectations for results. They may be kind, agreeable people, but their teams are often left feeling directionless and frustrated.

Overly empathetic leaders are often people pleasers who are uncomfortable with making a decision they know will be unpopular even if it is the right thing to do.

A key mistake the overly empathetic leader can make is to blend friendship with leadership. So many times I have seen leaders come to grief when they have had to address a difficult performance issue or make a difficult decision that affects colleagues who are also friends. Being friends can also expose the leader to allegations of favouritism or nepotism.

The way to address these pitfalls is to recognise if your approach has tipped into excessive empathy at the cost of other, equally important skills. If you are unsure or lack an insight into your impact on others, seek feedback maybe through a team survey or through an appraisal meeting. Using this information, you can formulate a development plan to strengthen your head and hands skills to bring your approach back into balance. Resolve to be friendly and approachable as a leader but separate your leadership from friendship.

As I mentioned earlier, an empathetic leader can still be an effective decision-maker with a results focus. The secret is to make sure you keep your head, hands and heart skills in balance.

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 my first chair’s role, I don’t think I had a good night’s sleep for over a year. I was genuinely concerned about the impact on staff and patient safety when nearly the whole executive team had to be suspended. Similarly, the pandemic was an incredibly stressful time within the NHS. I had lots of worries about how staff were coping and of course about the impact of the virus on the local population. However, I recognised that losing sleep and worrying was not productive in sustaining my resilience or enhancing my effectiveness as a leader.

As time has gone on and as I have navigated so many testing situations, I have come to trust my experience and instincts more and to worry a lot less. There is always a way forward and a solution to every problem.

To be blunt, I would identify worrying, losing sleep, panicking and festering on how difficult circumstances are as negative energy sappers. Wasting time on feeling hopeless traps you in a negative cycle and programmes in blockers to finding solutions. The more you tell your subconscious mind that you are worried and fearful, the more you will stay in that mental space and will be unable to conceive of and implement solutions.

It is really important to take a step back, give yourself a pep talk, seek advice from others and approach every difficulty with the belief that there will be a way to navigate even the knottiest problem to a resolution even if you cannot see it just yet.

I am a big fan of yoga and meditation, both of which have helped me stay calm and grounded in the most stressful situations and more trusting that my intuition will eventually come to the rescue.

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 am torn between two movements. First, I am on a mission to eradicate imposter syndrome! I was really horrified to learn how prevalent this syndrome is especially among female leaders. The effects of imposter syndrome are so pernicious, leaving incredibly talented people beset by self-doubt, anxiety and feelings of inadequacy.

One of my frustrations is that it has become almost fashionable to don the cloak of imposter syndrome and stop there. I think it is so damaging to accept that label. I want to help imposter syndrome sufferers throw off that label and use positive self-talk to build more confidence and belief in themselves. Feeling confident and positive about your strengths is healthy and makes you happier and more effective as a leader.

Secondly, I believe work should be fun and that laughter is the best medicine. I would like us all to find more laughter and happiness in life. Maybe we could replace imposter syndrome with laughter syndrome?

How can our readers further follow you online?

Please connect with me via my website:

I would love to hear from you!

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.