Leadership Begins With Empathy

New directions in challenging times
Posted February 12, 2021

Retailers have always anticipated the latest trends in fashion while consistently being inspired by great movements in design. Moreover, they’ve always embraced cutting-edge advances in technology. The hallmark of retail has traditionally been a quick and effective response to change with progressive new directions and strategies. It’s disappointing, however, that retailers remain stagnant in their approach to leadership, employing theories that are relics of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. As we move deeper into the 2020s, we are still suffering from outdated business models that are harmful to people and, quite frankly, bad for business.

Today, “empathy” is the buzzword being bandied about by retail executives across the industry. “We have to care about our customers,” is the rallying cry of retailers struggling to compete in today’s challenging environment. Though the concept of empathy is heartfelt, it is almost universally misunderstood and largely misdirected.

There is a misconception that the biggest concern for great retail leaders is their customers. The reality is that most retail execs never interact with their customers. Rather, they lead a team of dedicated associates who are assigned the task of interacting, servicing and caring about the customer. Therefore, it’s the responsibility of great retail leaders to care about the people they’ve entrusted to interact with the public. An effective leader knows implicitly that its these associates who are vital to the health and well-being of their company. Empathy shouldn't only be directed toward customers, but also toward the partners, associates, team members and employees who man the front lines. Leadership begins with empathy for the team members that get it done.

When climbing the professional ladder, most up-and-coming executives reach the next rung in the corporate hierarchy because they have a solid education, they work hard, and they're good at what they do. As they get promoted to positions of leadership, they no longer do the job that brought them to their lofty responsibilities. Rather, they supervise and hopefully motivate and energize the people now assigned to do the job that they excelled in. And while the upwardly mobile professional knows the intricacies and nuances of the job that propelled them forward,  many have never been trained to be an effective leader.

In the 1970s, renowned economist Milton Friedman argued that the only social responsibility of business is to increase its profits. It stated further that shareholder interests should be assigned first priority relative to all other corporate stakeholders. If one follows this logic (and many do), the natural deduction is that a corporate leader works for the shareholders.

It is high time for courageous retail leaders to stand up for more noble causes. It is high time for major employers to invest in their workers and contribute to their communities. Not only is this a long-term strategy for success, but it is arguably the moral thing to do. The corporate purpose must be further defined to not only serve the shareholders, but to also better serve the family of company supporters including employees, communities, investors, suppliers and, of course, customers.

Middle management and sales executives have long been called on the carpet if their numbers were down, or their general performance wasn't quite up to expectations. Is this approach inspirational? Shouldn't the approach be to motivate rather than intimidate? At some point in life, we all face issues that may affect our performance. Perhaps it’s a sick child, an ailing parent or marital issues. Empathy is being concerned about people in your charge, not just about their output.

Leadership isn't defined by the overarching ability to criticize failure, but rather the all-encompassing capacity to create environments that foster success. Establish a sense of anticipation in the workplace rather than a sense of dread. Instead of having people hide their mistakes, create an open and free dialogue where team members are not afraid to ask for help.

Leadership is a skill that has to be cultivated and developed. It isn’t about winning or losing, it’s about nurturing and letting one’s natural talents blossom. It’s about empowering people so they can rise to the occasion and perform at their inherent best. Leadership is giving credit to others when successful and accepting responsibility when unsuccessful.

In a 1965 article for The Readers Digest, President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote, “My own conviction is that every leader should have enough humility to accept, publicly, the responsibility for the mistakes of the subordinates he has himself selected and, likewise, to give them credit, publicly, for their triumphs. I am aware that some popular theories of leadership hold that the top man must always keep his ‘image’ bright and shining. I believe, however, that in the long run fairness and honesty, and a generous attitude toward subordinates and associates, pay off.”

In short, be a leader, build a sense of trust and an atmosphere of cooperation. Relate to the people in your charge. Empathy is where true leadership begins and success follows.

Eric Feigenbaum is a recognized leader in the visual merchandising and store design industries with both domestic and international design experience. He served as corporate director of visual merchandising for Stern’s Department Store, a division of Federated Department Stores, from 1986 to 1995. After Stern’s, he assumed the position of director of visual merchandising for WalkerGroup/CNI, an architectural design firm in New York City. Feigenbaum was also an adjunct professor of Store Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and formerly served as the chair of the Visual Merchandising Department at LIM College (New York) from 2000 to 2015. In addition to being the New York Editor of VMSD magazine, Eric is also a founding member of PAVE (A Partnership for Planning and Visual Education). Currently, he is also president and director of creative services for his own retail design company, Embrace Design.