Skip to main content

The Coaching Dept. Blog

Empathetic Leadership—Is Your Door Really Open?

As a leader, you don’t have to look far these days before you find some type of reference to leadership, empathy, and culture.

In its infancy, empathy in leadership was labeled as a “soft” skill quite nebulous in nature. In the past several years, however, “empathetic leadership” has moved beyond a buzzword, and emerged as a transformative approach to leading that has the power to inspire, engage, and drive success. It promotes higher employee engagement, improved well-being, and a culture of trust and support.

Empathetic leadership is a style that prioritizes understanding, recognizing, and responding to the emotions and needs of individuals within a team or organization. It involves active listening, genuine care, and a commitment to making decisions that consider the well-being and perspectives of all constituents. Simply put, empathetic leadership is a cornerstone of human connection. In the private club industry, it affects both the employee and the member experience. Not only is it not disappearing after the pandemic, but it is also becoming increasingly more important in our ever-changing workforce.

Leading with Empathy

How do you show that you are empathic? If it isn’t second nature to you, it may sound daunting. The good news is that leaders don’t have to be experts in human emotions to show they care and are paying attention to their people.

More than an Open Door Policy

Ask any manager if they are an empathetic leader. Most will proudly confirm that they are since they care about their people. Many will sight the proverbial “open door policy”—the concept that anyone is welcome to drop by at any time to bring their thoughts, ideas, and concerns to management. It sounds great in theory, and it can look good in an employee handbook (and a manager’s résumé). However, the proof and effectiveness go well beyond having an open office door; it hinges on the authenticity and empathy with which it is implemented. For example, during a team member conversation, if you are multi-tasking and aren’t genuinely present, maybe your door is too open!  Most importantly, an open-door policy is passive in nature. It implies that the onus is on the employee to approach management. It says, “When you have a problem you are welcome to bring it to my attention and I will show you that I care.” Unfortunately, not everyone has the courage to go to the manager’s office.

Saying you are open to ideas and feedback is different than being open. Saying you care is different than showing that you care.”

Be cautious of professing an open-door policy. It’s hard to live up to. It’s old-school. And from a time-management perspective, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s much more effective to create a culture of approachable and engaged leadership, an environment of genuine care, trust, and connection. This is where empathy begins.

  1. Put People First

    Prioritize the well-being and values of team members. Envision how decisions and choices will impact individuals and the team. Become a leading organization in diversity, equity, and inclusion. Consider life/work balance when scheduling. Get out of your office and connect. Have lunch in the staff room. Join in staff meetings. Be a part of every new employee orientation. Revamp your recognition program. Create a list of how you can put people first.

    Take care of your people, and they will take care of your members, and that will take care of everything else.

  2. Communicate—It’s Everything

    Become acutely aware of your communication. What is the impact that you have on others?  Develop your ability to ask powerful questions—the ones that engage others and bring about conversation and connection. Hone your listening skills so that you don’t just hear the words, but the real meaning behind them. Practice genuine listening. Mike Nichols observed that “Genuine listening happens when we suspend our memory, judgment, and desire, and for a moment at least exist entirely for the other person.” Become uniquely curious. Get to know your team members. Create a culture of feedback that flows in all directions on the organizational chart. Get comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations. Listen more. Talk less. Take action and follow up as promised. Be a role model of exceptional communication.

  3. Show Genuine Care and Compassion

    Be authentic. Be real. Be honest. Be genuine. Ensure that your behavior is congruent with your words. Display your humanness by showing vulnerability. Demonstrate that you care about the well-being, development, success, and happiness of all team members. Have regular on-on-one meetings with direct reports and encourage them to do the same with all their team. Have unscheduled drop-in meetings with no agenda other than to check in with the other person. Conversations build trust and rapport. Create development plans for each team member. Invest time and energy in their progress. Whether named as values in your organization or not, exhibit kindness, caring, and respect in everything you do. As Maya Angelou famously believed “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

    Model human leadership.

  4. Understand Emotions

    Work on your own emotional intelligence. Understand your own emotions and how you affect those around you. Then become skilled at recognizing the emotional states of others and how to show appropriate support as a leader. Practice seeing situations from others’ perspectives. Inquire about their emotions. Take a course or acquire some resources. In her brilliant book, Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown explains that in surveying over seven thousand people, the average number of emotions that participants could name was three (happy, sad, and angry). Her book explores eighty-seven emotions and related experiences. It’s an eye opener to understanding human emotion.

“I have come to find, through years of trial and error, that the way we treat our teams, how we talk to our teams, and how we care for our teams, will lead to the ultimate conclusion that it is always about the people.” – M. Kent Johnson, CCM General Manager/COO-Baltimore Country Club from his 2021 article Eat in the Cafeteria

Empathetic leadership goes beyond an admirable leadership trait. It is an essential component of a compassionate and productive work environment. It is a vital life skill.

So… is your door really open? Create opportunities to listen, respond, and prioritize the well-being of your team members. Create an atmosphere where everyone feels valued, heard, and supported. The result is not just a better workplace but a more successful and fulfilled organization.

Kevin MacDonald and Shelley MacDougall are the coaches for CMAA. To contact them call 1-866-822-3481 toll free or e-mail or

About the author

Shelley MacDougall

Shelley MacDougall is dedicated to creating leaders in life! Whether she is coaching one on one, facilitating learning for groups, or delivering keynote presentations, Shelley’s dynamic style and compassion for people are undeniable.

Since 2006, Shelley has been coaching CMAA/CMAC and club industry professionals, supporting them to reach new heights in their careers and in life. Along with her business partner, Kevin MacDonald, they have coached and worked with thousands of industry professionals in their combined 30 years of coaching. Their popular program, The Extraordinary Leader Program, continues to develop leaders at all levels of private clubs and beyond.

After obtaining her business degree at The Ohio State University, Shelley has invested the past 30 years in training and leading others. Fifteen years of experience inside the private club and hospitality industries equipped her to venture out to connect with organizations from a different perspective. As a coach, Shelley’s passion is developing leaders and creating cultures of elevated service. You can find more about her work at

Shelley believes that “Success is on the Inside”! She is committed to Elevating Lives and Organizations… Every Connection, Every Conversation, Every Day.

This website uses cookies

We use cookies to personalise content and ads, to provide social media features and to analyze our traffic