In a new book published by Routledge called Empathic Leadership: Lessons From Elite Sport, psychologist and consultant Peter Sear argues that the time of dictatorial leaders in sports, screaming from the side-lines and insulting their players, has ended. He says we are currently witnessing the emergence of emotionally intelligent and empathic coaches who, by proving a deeper understanding of their players, manage to get efficient results.
By carrying in-depth interviews with coaches of nine different elite sports across the globe, and backing them up with the latest research, Sear has found that empathic leadership motivates teams, encourages loyalty, and significantly improves changes of success.
“The head coaches who are leading with empathy are getting more out of athletes. The consensus is that to have success as a leader in elite sport in the modern era, you must have an empathic approach,” he explained.
Elite sports are frequently a setting for turbulent emotions, and factors such as performance, fans’ reactions, and media interpretations can place significant pressure on athletes, who are also required to remain physically and mentally fit, injury-free, and at a certain weight to perform properly.
According to Sear, in order for athletes to manage to cope with all these stressors and maximize their changes of success, empathic leadership – characterized by relationship management, building trust, and establishing strong lines of communication – is essential.
“There is no advantage to ruling with fear – you are just losing out on powerful knowledge of your team and your athletes. Success as a leader depends on your knowledge and understanding of people, their emotions, perspectives, and intentions, as well as the relationships you have with them. It is in these vital areas that empathy will give you an advantage,” he argued.
“Understanding what motivates your players and what hinders them will improve the quality of your decision-making as a leader. If you can understand when to push your players and when to support them, and identify who has potential and who is no longer emotionally invested, you’ll make better decisions. Understanding the unique character of each athlete allows you to develop them effectively according to their needs, and get the best from them.”
Thus, necessary skills for a successful leader should include effective communication, understanding body language, having clear boundaries to be able to make difficult decisions such as when to bench players, as well as a strong sense of self-empathy, or understanding of one’s own emotions and how they may impact others. However, Sear stresses that empathy should not always be equated with being soft and gentle. “Sometimes you need to recognize that one person might need to be pushed while that other player might need a friendly ear,” he explained.
Finally, Sear argues that humans are innately more prone to respond to empathic leaders. “This way of leading suits humans better psychologically. Through empathic communication and empathic relationships, emotions can be managed and needs met. The experience of work is valued, with high levels of wellbeing, which manifests in confidence and peak performance,” he concluded.