August 2, 2018

The key to unlocking your inner innovative leader

Empathy not only helps you understand your customers, but also helps you inspire your people to innovate.

Many of you have probably read a lot about innovation. Whether it’s about defining innovation in general, developing the right skills to innovate, or just the top innovations of our time, it’s a subject that you, as business leaders, need to be well acquainted with.

After all, the responsibility for innovation is not limited to your head of innovation or your R&D team. Yes, it may be their job, but as a business leader, you can be an innovator as well.

An innovative leader can mean different things to different people. It could mean someone who is always innovating to find new ways of leading, or it could mean a leader who actively pushes innovation within an organisation.

But whatever your definition of an innovative leader is, it is clear that you need to be one in this fast-changing world. As the old ways of leading are no longer sufficient, innovative leaders can be a step ahead of others.

One thing an innovative leader must be is empathetic. You need empathy to innovate and to lead. Here’s why.

First, in order to innovate, you have to solve a problem. To solve a problem, you need to understand it. And to truly understand it, you need to empathise with people. Innovation almost always begins with empathy.

Second, from a leadership standpoint, empathy is needed to truly understand your people and lead them effectively. Just as empathy gives you better understanding of your customers and helps you develop innovations for them, empathy as a leader lets you understand your people better and help them achieve their full potential.

Some leaders worry that empathy could damage their influence in the organisation as it is often seen as vulnerability and weakness. Those who have this view misunderstand what true empathy is.

Empathy is not about making yourself lower than others, always being nice or trying hard to please others. Empathy is about being real, putting yourself in other people’s shoes and truly understanding how they may be feeling.

Consequently, the key to unlocking your inner innovative leader is empathy. So how can you practise this all-important quality?

First, be self-aware. Ask yourself questions and reflect. How are you currently treating your people? Are you giving them the space to speak? Are you dismissing every idea they have voiced?

Self-awareness in empathy is important. It allows you to understand your own self first before taking any further action. If you’re aware of where you stand, you definitely will know where to begin when empathising with your people.

Second, listen and pay attention. You may not have a lot of time to listen to everything your people have to say, but it is important to give them the time and space for it in settings such as meetings or discussions. Look at it as an investment. After all, your people are your most important asset.

After all, empathy begins with understanding other people’s perspectives, and this comes from listening and paying attention.

Third, take time to practise. Empathy cannot be learned overnight and it’s definitely not a skill that anyone can perfect over time. But the more you practise it, the more your muscle memory for it strengthens. It’s about training your mind so that empathy eventually becomes your natural response.

Fourth, in your practice to be more empathetic, remember to always be genuine. You’ll need to understand your limits, and make sure that your act of empathy is also genuine. If you’re pretending day in and day out, that is no longer empathy. Not only will it be unsustainable, but also you will find yourself getting more and more resentful about keeping up the practice.

Last, don’t respond just for the sake of responding. Responding with no prior thought doesn’t always make things better. Empathy isn’t about how you can help a person in a given moment.

Sometimes, it’s simply about being there for them and creating that connection that makes things better.

Moreover, empathy is not just trying to understand others for the sake of trying. Empathy is about trying to truly understand what they’re going through.

And why is that important? As an innovative leader, can look at things from your people’s perspective, be able to connect with them, inspire them and drive them towards innovation and success.

Arinya Talerngsri is chief capability officer and managing director at SEAC, Southeast Asia’s leading executive, leadership and innovation capability development centre. Email or visit