Ruthlessness is a leadership quality valued almost exclusively on television. Dramatic shows like "House of Cards" or "Mad Men" might have you convinced that self-absorbed sociopaths make the most effective leaders, but you and I live in the real world. We need something better.

We're here to talk about empathy, and to argue that it easily ranks among the most important traits that every high-performing leader has

As we'll see in a moment, there's a wealth of data pointing squarely at empathy as the quality most necessary for a more harmonious workplace, a happier and more energetic workforce and a better business atmosphere in general.

Empathy at work in the world

What we're talking about here all sounds pretty abstract, so how do we quantify something like empathy?

Luckily, there's something called the Global Empathy Index, and it's exactly what it sounds like. Using a combination of information available to the public and proprietary information generated by an algorithm, GEI seeks to rank 160 major corporations according to their stock of empathy. This included an analysis of each company's ethics, internal culture, CEO presence and social media presence.

In 2015, GEI found that Microsoft ranked first in exhibited empathy, while Facebook, Tesla, Alphabet (Google), Procter & Gamble and Apple rounded out the next five top picks. Surprise, surprise - BP pulled in an uninspiring rank of 106.

Again, we're after practical advice and practical implications here - so what does it really mean for a company if it places sixth in this ranking or 106th? Well, we've got numbers for that, too.

According to a discussion of the GEI study in the Harvard Business Review, the top 10 companies named in the Global Empathy Index generated 50 percent more earnings and increased their value more than twice as much as the bottom 10.

That's pretty amazing, and it does what we might have once thought impossible: assign real, tangible value to the ethereal quality we call empathy.

Empathy back home

On a smaller scale, empathy can have a measurable impact on even the humblest startup or smallest workforce.

We're not talking earnings in the billions of dollars from multinational, multi-industry conglomerates anymore - we're talking about the ability for people to work together in harmony, understanding and mutual respect, along with cooperation.

"Leaders who master listening and responding with empathy will perform more than 40 percent higher in overall performance, coaching, engaging others, planning and organizing, and overall decision-making."

That's a whole list of things that sound like they're straight out of any primer on building a more positive company culture.

Empathy is right at the heart of it. Maybe it's not all that surprising when you hear it all laid out like this, with empirical data to boot. Of course teams and companies will work more harmoniously when they're more in touch with each other's feelings - how could it be otherwise?

The next question, then, is why.

Why empathy?

Why do more empathetic companies and leaders make better decisions? How does this tie in so closely with earnings? Perhaps because empathy is contagious.

Neither the leader of the free world nor the leader of a small startup will amount to much if they're not inspiring, and they can't be inspiring without being emotionally mature.

Empathy might be the pinnacle of emotional maturity and it filters down through just about every meaningful human interaction we can have in the world of business - or elsewhere.

If you as a leader in the workplace have genuinely spent time honing your ability to care about and react to what your co-workers are doing and feeling, you're already in the upper echelons of corporate leadership.

Witnessing that kind of effort will help inspire it in others, and on it goes. It's like knocking over the first domino: There's no stopping it once it falls.

Don't think empathy is merely looking outward - there's another major component, and it has to do with self-consciousness. A study in the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies suggests that leaders who are humble and critical of their own leadership styles have the best success.

The phrase "I'm my own worst critic" is almost painfully clichéd by now, but it has the ring of truth to it. We need to be aware enough of our own shortcomings that we not only address them, but also project an air of humility while we're doing it. That quality, too, is both infectious and inspiring.

Your employees will be aware of that, too. In time, they'll follow your example and learn to more objectively appraise their own work and contributions to the team. All this needs to start with you.

Published on: Sep 14, 2016
The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of