The Challenges for Empaths with Empathic Leadership





Minou Hexspoor




The Challenges for Empaths with Empathic Leadership

Empathic Leadership is the new buzz word: Forbes published about the benefits of empathy in leadership (image), more research is being conducted, for example by Catalyst, and organizations are exploring how to infuse empathy into the way they lead.


      But what if you are an empath holding a leadership position? Since you already possess the natural capacity to ‘feel’ and connect with people empathically, your struggle might be a whole different ball game. Being an empath doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to effectively put that empathy to work; at times it might even become a cycle of depletion.

      The Struggle is Real

      The struggle of empathic people in leadership positions is real, not in the least because empaths often end up in the role of being the ‘accommodator’. Empaths are deeply skilled in ‘feeling the room’, and picking up people’s needs, thoughts and emotions easily. For empaths this might often lead to attempting to accommodate everyone and everything in the best way they know how. 

      The consequence could be though, that underlying patterns go unaddressed, and that accommodating actually means: ‘keeping’ the harmony out of fear of negative outcomes. Empaths are extremely sensitive to disharmony. This is what we call a fear-based value, and in this case, could stem from a fear to rock the boat and a desire to keep everyone happy.

      Actually, holding on to fear-based values is quite common among empaths. As opposed to conscious values (values we choose consciously because they positively support who we are and want to be), fear-based values are values we uphold because we think that if we don’t, we believe there to be a negative consequence. They often sound like little voices in our heads: ‘if I don’t keep the harmony between people, shit will hit the fan’.

      Confessions of an Empath Leader

      I know myself well enough to know that as a leader I brought value and growth to the people I worked with. Leading is complex and infinitely dynamic, and as it brings out the best in us, it also reflects our opportunities for growth as leaders.

      For years, I didn’t know how deep that little voice was rooted inside of me. For long years I thought ‘harmony’ was one of my core values. Until I realized that it was actually a fear-based value and that the consequence of upholding that value, many times led to avoiding putting things on the table the that needed to be addressed. In favor, of course, of keeping the peace in general. It was only when I realized that my desire for harmony was based on fears, that I started seeing the consequences:

      • I avoided making decisions – unless circumstances forced me to – in fear of doing something that others might disagree with.
      • I avoided addressing the lack of professional boundaries and the consequential work-overload for the team I was leading. Why? Because subconsciously, I was afraid that if we did less, others would have to do more, and I didn’t want to be the cause of that. I said yes to everything and everyone, and indirectly asked my team to do the same.
      • I avoided addressing underperformance: I didn’t want to upset people, simply.
      • I avoided holding people accountable: because I was afraid they’d think I’m asshole.

      Looking back now years later, I realize how hard my team and I worked and how unhealthy that was for so many of us: a team full of overloaded empaths ready to be there for everyone else at the expense of ourselves.

      Empaths are quite skilled in upholding fear-based values, not in the least because we feel so deeply. We don’t realize however, that those fear-based values can easily be transformed into conscious-based values that make us truly happy, successful and fulfilled personally and professionally. You can be supportive of harmony AND put the fish on the table when needed. You can be someone who naturally meets the needs of others AND not feel depleted. You can be empathic in your approach to people AND have an opinion of your own that you have the courage to stand for, at the same time.

      Where to Start?

      Maybe the key for empaths, is hidden in a few things to start with:

      1.      Hear Yourself

      Learning to hear your own thoughts, feelings and needs before hearing those of everyone else: empaths are so naturally skilled to pick up everything around them, that hearing themselves can be quite the challenge.

      As a leader: when you can’t hear yourself, you are dismissing your own experience, knowledge, skills and capacities to lead in a functionally empathic way. Instead, you might let the experiences of others trigger your helper-mode, versus (empathically) addressing root causes.


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      2.      Understand Yourself

      When empaths start hearing themselves better, they start to more accurately understand themselves: who we are, what we truly want with our lives and what we wish to do and experience. This can sometimes feel scary: as we might wonder if all those things have consequences for the people around us: we’re so used to putting ourselves aside!

      As a leader: hearing yourself better will help you to become a stronger and more effective leader, because you allow your qualities and unique self, to come out consciously, and flourish, and inspire others to do the same. Which might just be why you are in this position to begin with!

      3.      Breaking Through Role Patterns

      This all starts with addressing judgment of others and self: because empaths are so tuned into everyone else, it can be extremely difficult to differentiate between what are others’ feelings and thoughts, and what are ours. This often leads to empaths taking things very personal: we easily think that negative feelings, thoughts and experiences of others, mean something about us:

      • something we did or didn’t do to upset them;
      • something we must do to prevent or solve it;
      • that we failed to be nice to someone
      • that we won’t be accepted or appreciated
      • that others find out we’ve been an imposter all along, etc.

      But you know what? And please remember this and remind yourself of it: What people say and do saying ONLY something about them. It’s their perspective and that’s for them to address and deal with. What YOU think and feel about it, that’s for you to look at.

      As a leader: the more you are able to remove your judgments about others and yourself, the more objectively you are able to look at situations and the relation to the people within it. It allows you to look at things from outside the box, without taking things to mean something about you personally. It helps you and others learn and grow, and break through behavioral patterns you might otherwise just reconfirm.

      What roles are you expecting yourself to be in for others? Who do you think you need to be, versus who do you really want to be? What interpretations are you creating about others that keep you in your role as helper/fixer/healer and them in the role of the one needing help?

      Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with being a helpful human being: the world needs more of that in general. But when helping and supporting are based on fear-based values, are you truly helping at all? Or are you just reconfirming patterns between you and others?

      4.      Prioritize Selfcare. Really.

      This is another one to remember! SELFCARE is not something you do when everything else is done. It is HOW you do everything!

      I want to challenge you to look at your own life for one week through the glasses of self-care. Put those glasses on and look at everything you do and that happens around you. What does your life look like through the glasses of self-care? I’m sure there is a lot to discover about how you love yourself, take care of yourself, how you set (or don’t set) boundaries, and what you allow in your life that you would stop accepting if you only knew how.

      As a leader: walk the talk. If you don’t take care for yourself, your needs and your work-life balance, what are you indirectly telling your team about how to take care of themselves? Exactly.

      A True Leader

      As you start honoring yourself as a conscious and functionally empathic leader, you might just discover that you are an incredible human being who has a shit ton to give to this world. And that doing that most effectively, is by taking care of yourself first, to care deeply about- and listen to your inner wishes and desires, and to discover who you really want to be in this life when you free yourself of the burden of expectations. For empaths, learning how to put empathy to work in a healthy and functional way, is key to becoming true Empathic Leaders. When you can do that, then, you can truly lead.


      If you’re an empath leader looking for support: book a free call with Minou Hexspoor, by clicking here.

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