In our personal branding world, we've become somewhat of a "look at me!" culture. I'm a Millennial, and even I roll my eyes when I hear about some young person's quest to become the next YouTube star by learning how to successfully launch Oreos off of city roofs into perilously-placed glassed of milk.
Unfortunately, while most of those efforts are ego-driven, smart leaders instead choose to follow Zig Ziglar -- the iconic author, salesman and motivational speaker on sales -- and his famous success strategy: "help enough other people get what they want, and you will get what you want."
To understand the rationale behind Ziglar's wisdom, I reached out to friend and fellow entrepreneur Dr. Chloe Carmichael, a New York City-based psychologist who regularly appears on television as the expert for nurturing high-performing people to achieve greater levels of success.
Without hesitation, Carmichael pointed to the one critical leadership trait that immediately enhances success: empathy.
"The more that entrepreneurs understand empathy," Carmichael explained, "the better they will relate to their customers, understand the psychology of customer experience, and be able to anticipate market issues."
Anyone can use empathy to be a better leader.
For years, I thought that someone was either born with the ability to be empathetic or not. But Carmichael explained that learning "intense listening" can help us all become more attuned to the mindset of the person across from us.
"The trick is that to really be empathetic," Carmichael revealed, "you have to be open to the fact that you are misunderstanding the person you're speaking with. You can have ideas about what the other person is thinking and try to understand their mindset," but the key is to remain curious about what they're thinking instead of deciding you know what they're thinking.
In essence, Carmichael proposes that empathy starts with humility, since we must admit that we can only be curious about someone's mindset, and never able to make a fully-formed judgment about something we simply can never truly know.
While being empathetic seems complicated, Carmichael argues that it can take many simple, everyday forms.
For instance, she explained that many psychologist offices actually don't have a person to answer the phone. By opening her curiosity to prospective patients, she realized that people calling for a therapist are in a particular window of vulnerability and openness, and Carmichael decided that she wanted a human to be there for that person when they called.
Empathy has a dark side.
As the simple example above shows, empathy creates better opportunities for leaders managing people, clients and other stakeholders. But it can also turn into a neurotic focus on the self. Carmichael warned that empathy can be taken too far if the leader is clambering to deeply understand everyone around him or her, perhaps reflecting a deep fear of non-acceptance.
For instance, if you used empathy in your personal life to maintain all of your friendships regardless of the quality of those relationships, "that would become inappropriate or counterproductive," Carmichael warned.
Especially as a leader, "you need to have a certain amount of security in personal relationships that you don't necessarily want to have in a manager relationship. This is because personal relationships are a natural commitment, while customer and employee relationships are transactional in nature."
But if taken in the right dosage, empathy can help you discover new products, service lines, markets and entirely new strategies. In fact, Carmichael used empathy to open her newest venture, Profitable Practices, after she spent time trying to understand the needs of early career therapists who were struggling with how to build a profitable therapist practice. In Carmichael's case, using empathy to understand that insecurity led to an entirely new business.
So the next time you're in a conversation with a friend, employee, manager or customer, actively open your mind and become curious about the other person's true mindset. You might just learn something that changes both of your lives for the better.