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How Do You Lead When Your Heart is Broken?

By Carrie Freeman Parsons

The past few months at Freeman have been some of the hardest I’ve experienced in my 40+ years with the company. Not just because of the way that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our industry, and our business, but because of the way it has impacted our people.

Nobody wants to go in front of their employees and deliver bad news. But when the news to thousands of employees is that we were enacting a plan to save their jobs in the long term by furloughing them in the short term… well, nothing can quite prepare you for that.

When I went into my office the day of our video conference announcement, I had notes jotted down and thoughts I wanted to use, but I honestly don’t remember what I said. In moments of truth, you can’t go by your notes. You have to lead by your heart. But that can be hard when it feels like that heart is broken.

Empathy often sounds soft to some business people, a trait that shows too much vulnerability and gives up too much control. But if you lean into it, empathy is one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal as a leader.

People want to work for and with people, not just brands. They want to be in a place where they can be their authentic selves and bring their humanity to work.

It can be messy, painfully honest at times, but it’s real. And especially in the wake of a global pandemic, during which people are quickly re-prioritizing what they want from an employer, empathy will be an expectation.

Just like you can’t truly commit to a healthy lifestyle and still enjoy fast food and sodas every day, empathy cannot be something you only do halfway. People can sense that disingenuity.

So, how do I know that leading with your heart creates trusted bonds with your team members? This is just one of the lovely responses I received after we delivered that very difficult news:

We all know you, Carrie. But I know it's impossible for you to know all of us personally in return. However, please know this…. We can see and feel your love and it is reciprocated. Everyone was talking about how clear it shined through to us when we needed it most.

An empathetic, people-first culture requires leaders who not only encourage it, but truly believe and live it authentically, every day. Only then can you protect that culture and the values that are born from it, allowing them to become a driving force that pushes the purpose and strategy of your business forward.

Empathy is the thing that helps you truly connect with the people around you, guiding you through the tough moments by reminding you that, in the end, we are all human. And that’s something we can trust — in the business world and beyond.

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