Save a seat for ’empathy’ on the board

Why it's an end for Macho leadership, and compassionate and empathetic leadership is the in thing now


There was a time, when leaders were born to be macho. They had the ability to take the right decisions even in odd circumstances, and their word was final. People blindly followed what leaders said. No one had the right or the might to question.

This doesn’t fascinate anymore!

Macho leaders are now considered to have an inflated self-belief. They are convinced that their judgement is superior and tend to ignore other’s opinions, attracting a lot of criticism.

The global chaos wrought by COVID-19 has changed the game. So, what is in now? Empathetic leadership! The first rule for which is to keep people at the forefront of the decision-making process.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern emerges as a shining example. While international headlines describe Ardern’s win for the second time as “stunning” and “historic”, the leader has been a long-time advocate of empathetic leadership.

Ardern’s navigation of the country, through the pandemic, has rekindled the conversation around leadership driven by compassion. Some wonder whether this means the death knell for the traditional leadership style, which is inclined towards aggression.

HR Katha too was curious to find out whether organisations are finally making room for empathy in the boardroom.

Irfan Shaikh

“The ‘my way or the highway’ attitude may still exist but doesn’t work anymore.”

Year of lessons

Tangible change may still be a distant dream, but HR leaders do believe the year 2020 pushed leaders and decision makers to discard aggression.

“COVID-19 has taught everyone a lot of lessons,” notes Sriharsha Achar, Jt ED & CHRO, Star Health & Allied Insurance. “Most leaders are speaking a different language in today’s context, because they themselves are homebound.”

Virtual meetings offered a peek into each other’s personal lives and remote work conditions compelled teams to adapt to each other’s circumstances. “The playground of work is changing,” adds Achar. “We can’t think of one-size-fits-all solutions, and aggression certainly doesn’t need to be displayed at this point in time.” Sharing highlights from a webinar he attended, Achar says, “The need for compassion is a sentiment being expressed by companies across sectors.”


Dilip Pattanayak

“Initiatives should take into consideration the larger and overall interest of the institution and its people.”

Numbers with compassion

The focus needs to shift to output rather than the number of hours being clocked. “People cannot be micro-managed at this point in time. There is so much stress all around, one has to have the empathy to understand what is happening in somebody’s house,” notes Achar. “One has to now assess a situation thoroughly before resorting to harsh action.”

The HR leader points out that aggressive leadership is usually found in a culture driven by sales and targets. “It cannot be all about targets and numbers. It has to be numbers with compassion now. There has to be some reasonableness.”

Thinking for people

Since it is the people that make an organisation, “empathy and compassion definitely have to be there” to run it,” says Dilip Pattanayak, president & CHRO – steel & corporate, JSW.

“A leader has to be transparent and communicate right. That is when people will trust you. Initiatives should take into consideration the larger and overall interest of the institution and its people,” adds Pattanayak.

The ‘my way or the highway’ attitude “may still exist but doesn’t work anymore,” observes Irfan Shaikh, HR expert. “I think most of the successful organisations have adapted to more empathetic and inclusive styles of leadership. It starts from the top, and hence, these ideas should be encouraged more than before.”

Old habits die hard

It is an unwritten understanding that, to be a leader, one must be strong, tough and put together. How else can leaders expect such large numbers of people to have faith in their decisions? The decision-making process too is believed to be most efficient when based on straight logic, instead of subjective emotions.

Enough has been said and written about the fallacies of aggressive leadership and why empathy is needed at the top, but it seems it will be a few years before we see leaders feeling confident in their vulnerability.

Sriharsha Achar

“Most leaders are speaking a different language in today’s context, because they themselves are homebound.”


“If we focus only on being seen as the strongest, most powerful person in the room, then I think we lose what we’re meant to be here for. So, I’m proudly focused on empathy because we can be both empathetic and strong,” says Ardern in an interview with author Geoff Blackwell.

New Zealand’s example of surviving the ultimate litmus test – aka 2020 – may have perhaps been the demonstration of effective leadership that the world needed. Hope leaders around the world are taking copious notes from Ardern’s book!