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ATD Blog

Leaders Need to Hold the Line With Empathy

Thursday, April 1, 2021

I’ll never forget seeing their shocked faces as I explained our mission to a “voluntold” pickup team: to hold defensive positions on our base long enough for everyone to evacuate our C-130 airlift aircraft if we were overrun by enemy forces. Clearly, if things got to where anyone was counting on us to hold the line, the situation had spiraled downward. We were far more adept at wielding wrenches and typewriters than weapons.

“Wait, that means we could be left behind?” someone asked. How in the world was I going to motivate this team to hold the line? I was fresh out of college and a new officer. Where could I go from here?

On the 30th anniversary of Desert Storm, I am finally transcribing my journals and finding them full of lessons I carried into my career. This was where I learned about the power of empathy when supporting a team.

Theresa Wiseman, a nursing scholar, has studied this topic and proposed four essentials for empathy:

  • See the world as others see it.
  • Be nonjudgmental.
  • Understand another person’s feelings.
  • Communicate the understanding of that person’s feelings.

I could look my team in the eyes to navigate this critical conversation from their perspective, but how can you do this when you’re leading virtually?

Seeing the world as others see it can be challenging because our instinct is to view the world through the lenses of our own lived experiences. We probably don’t even know we are doing this and don’t even know what we don’t know. Leading virtually gives us an opportunity to peek into our team’s world (Is she hiding in her closet for quiet?) and get to know our team members even better. Some teams begin their meetings with simple icebreakers or have individuals take turns teaching something about themselves or a skill. An intentional investment of small amounts of time to build your team and help them “see” each other can have an outsized payoff.


Being nonjudgmental may go against all your inner instincts to be as decisive as possible as quickly as possible. After all, maybe you transitioned into your leadership position because of your decisiveness. Empathic leaders stay curious, and one way to do this is to ask open-ended questions instead of jumping to judgment. You usually can’t go wrong with “tell me more.”

To understand another person’s feelings, listen with your ears and your eyes. We have so many meetings where we ask what people are doing. When do we regularly ask how people are doing? When I started this, it took several rounds of asking my team, and I had to be vulnerable. I shared my struggles with being quarantined, battling a fever, and figuring out food delivery for my son and me. After that, my team came on camera and started sharing their authentic “how” they were doing. I learned important things I desperately needed to know; some I could even fix to make things better for them. We cannot assume people will come to us when a need arises. We need to create a space for this understanding to occur.

Communicate that you understand others’ feelings by verbalizing that you hear them. Don’t be vague. Summarize what you have heard and ask if you got it right. Try using empathic nonverbals, even in a virtual environment. Be intentional with your camera framing to communicate nonverbally and show your team you are journeying alongside them.


Thirty years ago, I listened to my team’s fears and told them I understood and shared them. But then, I reminded them of our mission and said I would be right there with them despite the law prohibiting women from being in combat. My willingness to spend a moment listening made the difference.

As you lead your team beyond one year of COVID-19, your empathic leadership could be the last line of defense supporting a team member in ways you may not even realize.

Hang in there and keep holding the line.

About the Author

Marcia Webster, PhD (Col, USAFR, Ret) is a faculty member at the Office of Personnel Management’s HR Solutions, Center for Leadership Development. She delivers the Federal Executive Institute’s flagship program—Leadership for a Democratic Society and designs leadership development programs for Senior Executive Service leaders and other leaders across government. She loves teaching how to lead change using lessons from history - especially the American Civil Rights Movement. As a remote worker living in Montgomery, Alabama, she enjoys leading classes that tie into local history.

Prior to joining OPM, Marci served in the Air Force in uniform and as a civilian for 27 years. She also taught leadership for various universities including the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Schiller International, and the University of Maryland.

She is an alumna of the University of Southern California, Abilene Christian University, Walden University, Air Command and Staff College, and the Naval War College.

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