September 22, 2018

Encouraging deep understanding to build on leadership

As our world changes at a rapid pace, so does the business landscape; leadership too is always changing with the times. From the rigidly hierarchical style of decades ago to the flatter structure of decision making today, leadership continues to evolve.

The rate at which the world changes will continue to accelerate, and the way you lead the people in your organisation today may become redundant. This is why leadership needs empathy — deeper understanding.

The term “empathy”, I admit, has become a buzzword that is being overused in business. Sometimes the term itself is no longer what it means and it gets lost in translation.

Michael Ventura, the CEO of Sub Rosa, an award-winning strategy and design studio, even acknowledged this in the first few lines of his book, Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership: “Empathy is a squishy word. Sometimes it’s confused with sympathy or misinterpreted as ‘being nice’.”

Empathy is about deep understanding and when you apply it, leadership becomes sustainable. With practice, you will be able to adapt to the changes of the world as quickly as it moves. This is because empathy almost always requires you to be ready to adjust or react depending on the situation and people, and how much you understand.

Here are some ways to encourage deep understanding from Michael Ventura’s book that I found relevant to my experience, and I’d like to share them with you.

First, be curious. Curiosity is the very thing that aids in being able to learn and understand your people better. Asking them more questions and having real conversations allows you to get to know them better. This also works the same way with customers.

While curiosity is great, be sure not to push too much if you see the other person start to get too uncomfortable. Empathy is not about curiosity alone but the sincerity of your interest in others.

Second, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Every normal human being wants to portray their best self to the world. We rarely boast about our failures and mistakes. But the thing is, those imperfections are what make all of us human.

Being vulnerable does not mean you’re openly allowing others to attack you. It really means self-awareness and truly understanding your own imperfections. This really allows you to open up to understanding others, which brings us to the next point.

Third, open your mind to new things. Opening your mind doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with everything that others suggest. Rather, it is about giving them the space to speak out and considering what they say instead of brushing it aside.

However, if you’ve become used to the same way of doing things, this can be quite difficult to do, especially if something that is being suggested goes against your values. But as I mentioned, it is not about agreeing to what others say — it’s about opening your mind to their perspective.

Fourth, don’t be deterred by setbacks; true understanding isn’t all about constant success. From time to time you’ll find yourself tired of trying to understand others better, and the reality is, people don’t always respond the way you want them to.

In my experience, applying a deep level of understanding towards others in everything you do is tiring and does take an emotional toll on you. Sometimes you expect certain reactions from people if you treat them a certain way, but it just doesn’t work out as expected. It is easy to get discouraged when you feel you’ve done your best to try to understand others.

Remind yourself that it’s okay to take a step back when you need to. When it comes to progress, change and growth, you sometimes have to step into discomfort to stretch yourself.

Last, be brave in the face of hardship in order to gain a new level of success. Bravery is a small part of each point mentioned above. Without some bravery, you wouldn’t be able to allow yourself to be more vulnerable or be able to follow your curiosity.

Deeper understanding of others doesn’t seem like an easy journey — and it shouldn’t be. Great things are not easily attainable. Just as your journey as a leader was a tough one, this journey of deeper understanding will also surely be worthwhile.

Arinya Talerngsri is Chief Capability Officer and Managing Director at SEAC, Southeast Asia’s leading executive, leadership and innovation capability development centre.  She can be reached by email at or  For daily updates, visit 

For more on the new language of leadership, visit