The leadership traits necessary to thrive in the current business climate are not the same ones as in eras past. So which ones are crucial today? 

Ernest Wilson, the dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, shares in Harvard Business Review his findings from three years of asking that question of business leaders around the world.

"They identified five as critical: adaptability, cultural competence (the capacity to think, act, and move across multiple borders), 360-degree thinking (holistic understanding, capable of recognizing patterns of problems and their solutions), intellectual curiosity, and, of course, empathy," Wilson writes.

Wilson explains that when the leaders kept mentioning soft skills that require emotional intelligence, he was surprised. He expected to hear endorsements for toughness and boldness. But when they told the leaders they interviewed about the findings, many said empathy was the most important among the five top responses.

This "enthusiasm for empathy among business leaders crosses borders," he writes. "Not only entertainment executives in Los Angeles and IT leaders in Manhattan but also PR professionals in Shanghai and digital businessmen and investors meeting in the Jockey Club in Beijing acknowledged [its] overwhelming importance."

Why is empathy so important? Wilson says it helps to deal with customers effectively. Since the advent of the Internet, consumers have developed a strong voice and can more easily express their feelings toward a business. They also have thousands of options if your company makes a mistake or provides a poor customer experience.

Empathy also will be a helpful if you are entering a new market. "Empathetic understanding is ... indispensable in increasingly diverse markets, like those of the U.S., Germany, and even Japan, and in other cultures around the world. Neither technical knowledge nor business acumen suffices. You must be sincerely interested in understanding other cultural preferences and choices," he writes.

Equally important is how empathy will help you with employees. Organizations today are more open and relationship-based than in the past. "Many companies have abandoned rigid hierarchies and top-down command, believing that collaboration produces better results than cutthroat competition of the sort reported at Amazon," Wilson writes. "In these companies, relationships and persuasion have become essential for success. And to persuade effectively you must be able to empathize."