Satya Nadella knows how to rise to a challenge. In 2014, he became CEO of Microsoft, a company that at the time was struggling with its legacy as a personal computer company in the post-PC age. It was also struggling with bureaucracy and the failures of its previous CEO, Steve Ballmer, who retired five years earlier than planned.

Nadella, so far, has won high marks, most notably for building one of the biggest cloud infrastructures in the world. He's credited with strengthening the company's culture and helping increase its stock value by 60 percent to an all-time high.

What quality does he most credit with his leadership success? The answer may surprise you: empathy. In his new book Hit Refresh, he writes about the importance of "the unique quality we call empathy, which will become ever more valuable in a world where the torrent of technology will disrupt the status quo like never before."

Empathy has served Nadella well as CEO of Microsoft. It's encouraged him to empower employees, for instance when one complained about wanting to print from a phone and on the spot, he gave that employee full authority to make it happen.

And empathy saved Nadella from letting a misstep turn into a huge problem early in his tenure as CEO. During a public event, he was asked for advice for women who feel uncomfortable asking for raises. "It's not really about asking for a raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raise," he responded.

It was an answer rooted in the Hindu principle of karma. But it was an exceedingly dumb thing to say in a nation where women earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by men in similar jobs, and in an industry where the lack of women in high-paying jobs is striking. Fortunately, Nadella's empathy kicked in quickly and that same day he sent an email to the entire company apologizing for his remark. "I answered that question completely wrong," he wrote, adding that he'd learned a valuable lesson.

Nadella learned empathy after the birth of his oldest child, Zain, he explains in an interview with Good Housekeeping. Zain suffered asphyxiation in utero, and as a result he is quadriplegic, has a limited ability to communicated, and is legally blind. "After Zain, things started to change for me," he said. "It has had a profound impact on how I think, lead, and relate to people."

Raising Zain, who is now 21, was challenging for Nadella and his wife Anu, who wondered at first if she had done something to cause Zain's disabilities and whether she was doing enough for him. "Anu has deeply taught me something through all of what's happened with Zain--how to forgive myself," Nadella told Good Housekeeping. "None of us is perfect, none of us will be perfect. Once you come to that deeper realization, you don't judge others as quickly, you listen better and you can amplify people's strengths versus focusing on their weaknesses."

That's a mindset that will help any leader. It's one most of us still need to learn.

Published on: Sep 30, 2017
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