Wendy Smith: 5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Empathetic leaders can create a workplace community that is respectful and inclusive of differences of all kinds. Leaders serve as role models in everything they do; empathy by its very nature embodies acceptance and inclusion. When you create an inclusive community, people want to be part of it, and are likely to stay.

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 Wendy Smith.

Wendy Smith, Ph.D., LCSW, is a retired clinical professor of social work and associate dean of curriculum development and assessment at the University of Southern California Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. She taught courses on child and adolescent development and social work practice with children, families, and transition age youth. She is a licensed clinical social worker who maintained a private practice in psychotherapy in Los Angeles for 35 years.

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?

Mycareer path has not been straightforward. Like many people, maybe women especially, there have been twists and turns when a new door opened or a chance meeting led to a new interest. As a college student who loved language and literature, I thought I would likely be a writer or teacher — and while both of those things eventually happened, I became a social worker and psychotherapist first. After my children were in school, I returned to school for a PhD in social work, so that I could teach at the university as well as maintain my psychotherapy practice.

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

A few years ago, I joined a group of lawyers and advocates from Human Rights Watch who were providing workshops in state prisons to inform inmates who committed crimes as juveniles about changes in California law that could allow them to have parole hearings that considered their youth at the time of their crimes, possibly reducing their sentences. As a therapist, I led small groups of men in discussions of how to develop insight into their criminal behavior. At Pelican Bay Prison, I had a one-on-one meeting with a man who was isolated because he had recently renounced his Mexican gang affiliation.

The conversation was wrenching. He wept as he told me of the pain and guilt he felt about the way he had lived his life and his tenuous hopes for the future. I wept too. Only lately, he said, he had begun to see how events of his early life impacted him. His baby brother died in childhood, and his mother’s grief consumed her. She turned on him cruelly, pouring scalding water over his hands, a terrifying experience that was repeated more than once.

For 20 minutes, the man in isolation and I were alone (with a guard out of hearing distance), and he wept and spoke freely, one human being to another. I could feel how the simple act of telling his story to a person who wanted to hear it was a restorative moment.

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

I don’t lead a company, but I have led and do lead other kinds of teams, in academia, in nonprofit community organizations, and as the chair of a county commission on children and families. In all of these different contexts, quality relationships characterized by mutual respect and diverse thinking have been key ingredients to success. In a university environment, for example, when faculty and staff were siloed, there was little communication or understanding between the two. We developed work groups that included members of both groups, bringing them together with a common goal, and strengthening the departmental community.

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

The short answer is curiosity, a strong work ethic, and your topic of interest, empathy. Curiosity is what drives me to learn about and engage in different arenas. For example, my initial decision to become a therapist arose from the experience of tutoring in an elementary school in a disadvantaged neighborhood. Instead of teaching, I found I wanted to know much more about what the children’s lives were like, why they were experiencing difficulties in learning or behavior.

My work ethic accounts for the success I’ve had in school; I would often be that student who did not just some, but all of the reading. When I wrote a textbook, I did the research myself rather than assign it to an assistant. Probably that was equal parts work ethic and curiosity — I wanted to learn first-hand from the research. When I commit to a task or a role, that commitment is a promise I’ve made, not only to another person or group, but to myself.

Last, but definitely not least, is empathy. It is the bedrock of everything I do, beginning with psychotherapy, and most recently, when I was interviewing men and women who were incarcerated for juvenile crimes about the trauma in their early lives.

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.

I had served as the Chair of a 15-member county commission for two one-year terms, and had the option of a third term. However, I learned that another commissioner also planned to run for the position. We were both well-qualified, but I felt that the effect of a competitive election process might have a divisive effect that could lead to hard feelings and interrupt the existing feeling of community on the commission. Although it was a tough decision, I decided not to run for the 3rd term, but to be a source of support and advice for the new chair.

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 can be defined as “feeling with,” as compared with “feeling for.” It is the capacity to truly understand another person’s experience and put yourself in that place.

In the context of leadership, empathy is essential to understanding your team and their challenges and strengths. When you can do that, you are able to help your team maximize their potential and deal with the obstacles that may exist for them.

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

At the university, a staff member was asked to do something highly improper by a superior. Because he knew me to be an empathic person, he was able to trust and confide in me, despite his fear of reporting the incident. His fear was evident to me, and I told him that I would take the responsibility for reporting for him. My understanding of his complicated feelings — knowing something had to be done, but feeling unable to face the possibility of retaliation — provided great relief to him and had the further positive effect that the offending supervisor was held accountable.

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

This is a great question because there is often tension between knowing how your team feels and knowing you have to go in a direction different from the one that they would prefer. One of the ways to bring empathy to bear in these kinds of situations is to give voice to the way the team members feel. As a leader, you can speak to that directly, or you can create an opportunity for team members to do it, following with describing why and how you reached the decision that you did, and your acknowledgement that it was a tough decision because you value the team’s views.

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

Empathy is feeling with, sympathy is feeling for. Both have their places and can be important. Understanding the distinction is important because different situations may call for nuanced responses. When a deeper understanding and sense of connection is needed, sympathy may be insufficient and distancing, and people may feel that they are not understood. In psychotherapeutic contexts, empathy is the coin of the realm, whereas in some less emotional contexts, a sympathetic acknowledgement of a difficulty may be all that is needed (or appropriate) to be able to move forward with a task.

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

Cultivation of empathy is really cultivation of self- and other-awareness. Paying close attention to your own experience, including your self-doubts, your vulnerabilities, and your strengths can develop your ability to pay attention and listen to others with greater openness. As you increase your listening and feeling skills, you will increase your understanding of others, and the self-protections or defenses you erect will soften or decrease. And, as the people you work with feel more seen and understood by you, they too will become less defensive and self-protective, freeing up their energy to address the actual work at hand.

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

Because empathy can allow you to feel into the feelings of others, even those different from yourself, it can help a leader to grasp the emotional experiences of diverse colleagues and team members. For example, if you can allow yourself to step into the shoes of someone who feels isolated, or excluded, or othered, you can connect with that person, making a dent in their feelings of isolation or exclusion just by making the connection. You also set an example for the rest of your team about extending yourself toward someone who may feel like they don’t fit in.

What’s your approach to ensuring that succession planning is a holistic process, and not just confined to the top layers of management? How do you communicate this philosophy through the organization?

I think of succession planning as being similar to “termination” in psychotherapy — that it starts and should start from the beginning of taking a leadership role. That is, your mindset from the outset is that there will come an ending or a change eventually, and that ending or change will be a mark of having achieved your goals, in therapy, or as a leader. Change/endings are so often feared, yet they often indicate successful work and can be framed that way.


Based on your experience and research, can you please share “5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership”?

  1. Empathy leads to more self-knowledge and greater understanding of others. As a leader, you will be aware of your own strengths and vulnerabilities, and those of your team members. This greater awareness will contribute to your planning, your deployment of the people you are leading, and your effectiveness overall.
  2. Empathy enables better relationships between and among people. This is true in every context, including work places. Leaders who understand their teams and team members who feel understood by the leader and by one another can work together more effectively, and happily.
  3. Building on those better relationships, empathy leads to more effective problem-solving. When people feel understood and accepted, they are at their best in thinking through problems because they are not hampered by feeling defensive or misunderstood.
  4. Empathetic leaders can create a workplace community that is respectful and inclusive of differences of all kinds. Leaders serve as role models in everything they do; empathy by its very nature embodies acceptance and inclusion. When you create an inclusive community, people want to be part of it, and are likely to stay.
  5. Empathy will lead you to place value on individual and group well-being. When you are able to feel with others, you cannot help but recognize the importance of the feeling of well-being. You will bring your own awareness of the difference that well-being makes into your work, conveying your recognition that every person needs a sense of well-being to participate at their optimal level.

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

Your earlier question about balancing tough decisions with empathy touched on this. Leaders can devote too much time to the empathic side of the equation, or allow their understanding of team members to get in the way of making those tough decisions. When leaders find themselves stuck at empathizing with a problematic team member rather than dealing with the problem, or failing to move in a timely way on a decision, they can go through a self-awareness review, analyzing where the obstacle is so that they can move forward.

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?

I find that when I’m worrying about a problem at night, it is almost always something that is actually within my control — something I have failed to address, or something upcoming that I am worried about addressing. Because the problem is within my control, the solution is as well. Sometimes I can then turn those wakeful hours into problem-solving that I can take into my daytime decision-making. And even if I haven’t solved the problem, I have recognized it and that is the first step to addressing it.

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. 🙂

After many years as a psychotherapist, teacher, researcher, and leader, I am convinced that what happens to us in childhood has great power to influence the rest of our lives. I would like to see a world in which children’s safety and their opportunity to develop to their full potential would be a key priority shared by all people.

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.