SLID’s Women Directors’ Forum Convenes Panel Discussion on Empathetic Leadership in a Time of Crisis

The Women Directors’ Forum (WDF) of The Sri Lanka Institute of Directors organized a panel discussion titled “Empathetic Leadership in a Time of Crisis” on 19 November 2021 at the Cinnamon Grand Colombo to discuss and share insights with its members on the virtues of and the need for empathy in leading organizations in times of crises such as the current pandemic. The keynote was delivered by Ms. Hajar Alafifi-Chairperson, Unilever Sri Lanka.  Moderated by Dilshan Rodrigo-Director/COO, Hatton National Bank PLC, the panel consisted of Ms. Shiromal Cooray-Managing Director, Jetwing Travels (Pvt) Ltd, Ms. Kasthuri Chellaraja Wilson-Group CEO, Hemas Holdings PLC, Ms. Lakmini Wijesundera-Co Founder, IronOne Technologies/BoardPac and Ms. Chamila Bandara-Director/CEO, Mountain Hawk Express (Pvt) Ltd as well as Ms. Alafifi.

“Empathy goes beyond compassion. Leaders were super-heroes, commanding and controlling with top-down leadership styles until maybe 10 years ago. With the advent of Covid, leaders realized that they now had to pull a different muscle to lead the team and drive business performance. They needed to make their people feel safe and cared for. This required them to exude a completely different leadership style. They had to become human leaders. Empathetic leadership is about doing hard things in a human way. It is not about becoming fluffy or being kind for the sake of being kind. It is about driving performance whilst being human” said Ms. Hajar Alafifi in her keynote address and explained that empathy builds productivity contrary to the belief that empathy is counter productive to business results and performance. She also emphasized that an empathetic leader drives business results by supporting and challenging the team at the same time.

Dilshan Rodrigo citing research conducted said that while 80% of leaders consider themselves empathetic leaders, the staff ratings of these leaders indicate that only 20% of them are actually seen to be empathetic leaders. He also said that during the difficult period due to Covid, he has seen companies operating in good industries not doing well and companies operating in difficult industries doing well due to good leadership, emphasizing that ultimately it is leadership that matters in achieving business performance.

Responding to a question from the moderator on empathetic leadership and how it manifests itself for each of the panelists, Ms. Lakmini Wijesundera said that as a growing company the expectation from the leadership is different to the well-established, well-structured companies. “In our situation, communication with the staff is very important with understanding and empathy towards the team.”

Ms. Kasthuri Chellaraja Wilson sharing her thoughts said that there is a fine line between understanding and sympathy, and that there are things that leaders can understand, acknowledge, and accommodate. Listening and having deeper conversations with the team had helped her to understand her individual team members better.

Ms. Shiromal Cooray emphasized that empathy needs to come from leaders and that it is their duty to instill an empathetic culture in the company. She said that merely having an empathetic leader may not be sufficient and that empathy must be cascaded down the company’s hierarchical lines through many interventions.

Ms. Chamila Bandara mentioned that empathy is a core value in her company and one of 10 leadership attributes. She said that when Covid came about, their leadership team was really put to the test as theirs was an essential service which put the staff at risk given that they had to make deliveries even during the pandemic. She emphasized that empathetic leadership is not only thinking of your employees and putting them first but also about making intelligent and commercially viable decisions. “During a crisis, one needs to be confident of one’s ability as a leader” she added.