Leading Your School as “Chief Empathy Officer”

January 20, 2022

Empathy sets exceptional leaders apart from pedestrian ones.

Take a moment to identify the best school leaders you have worked with or encountered—hopefully, several come to mind—and list the qualities that made them so effective.

What sets them apart from those perceived as just OK administrators?

No doubt, these exceptional leaders are hard workers, knowledgeable about best practice, and focused on student and faculty growth. But in my experience, what sets the exceptional leaders apart from pedestrian leaders is their capacity for empathy.

In other words, they make time to know and care for others. These empathic leaders ask, listen, and consciously work to understand how people feel, what they believe, and why they believe it. Regardless of their official title, exceptional leaders are their school’s Chief Empathy Officer (CEO), the school empathy role model. It is their empathy, not edicts or position, that enables them to be stronger leaders through the relationships they develop.

So, What Is Empathy?

In its simplest form, empathy is knowing others and understanding their feelings. Emergency physician and author Brian Goldman describes empathy in The Power of Kindness as “the ability to use your imagination to see things from the view of another person, and to use that perspective to guide your behavior” (2018, p.3). In other words, it is an interaction, a thoughtful transition from observation of a person’s needs to active follow-through to address those needs.

In my experience, good leaders have always been empathic—the pandemic has only increased our need for empathetic leadership. The isolation, angst, and fear students and staff are experiencing make it even more important that principals bring their empathy to every relationship and situation.

Perfecting the Role

As leaders, however strong our natural capacity for empathy, we can further develop the skill by engaging in empathic listening and asking questions that help us understand others’ perspectives. A school CEO recognizes that informal interactions and conversations can create opportunities to build trust, so they make a point of wandering the halls and spending time in the teacher’s lounge.

Regular work practices can also be altered with empathy development as a goal. For example, during my former school’s spring teacher meetings (one-on-one sessions to discuss teacher performance evaluations and plans for the following year), my last question was always, “What can I do to help you?” Asking it became a tradition, so much so that some teachers came prepared for my question, having written their thoughts and needs on a piece of paper.

Note that I would ask, “What can I do to help you?” rather than “What can I do to help you be a better teacher?”

I carefully worded the question this way because I wanted to learn what kind of support teachers needed and not limit the scope of the meetings to their pedagogy alone. Their replies to me ranged from requests to be paired with a colleague mentor to the need for new technology to asking to chair a faculty committee.

My question began a rich, and often ongoing, dialogue. What I learned from the staff (even the occasional surprise, such as when a teacher shared that she wanted to move to a different grade level) increased my empathy and understanding and ultimately made me a better CEO. Our respect and trust for one another deepened when I followed through and provided what they requested, and when I was unable to do so, I made sure to explain why.

To further my understanding of teachers’ needs, I always sent several staff surveys throughout the school year. In August, I asked for reflections on our before-school PD sessions, and once the year started, I asked what the faculty thought of “portfolio night” and for reactions to various events and situations.

Each spring, I solicited feedback on my personal effectiveness as a school leader, asking staff to respond to questions like, “What should Tom stop doing?”, “What should Tom start doing?”, and “What should Tom continue doing?” I would then guide my actions and behavior based on that feedback.

Of course, as integral as asking, listening, and understanding are to empathy, we cannot stop there. A CEO will bring an empathic approach to every aspect of the principalship. This is shown in the following chart, taken from my new book The Principal as Chief Empathy Officer (ASCD, 2022).

Notice how subtle changes can have big impact.

Empathy in Instructional Leadership

Instructional Leadership Approach

How are scholastic goals chosen?

Traditional practices

Determined by central office or other administrators and board members, assigned to teachers.

Empathetic practices

Created by a committee of teachers and administrators with input gathered from students, staff, and community members.

What outcomes do goals address?

Traditional practices

Students are prepared to succeed on the next test, in the next class, and at the next school.

Empathetic practices

Students master the 3 R’s and they also develop character and the SEL skills that are valued in the world outside of school.

How is a teaching team defined?

Traditional practices

Teachers teach in silos. They work aside one another but are mostly lone rangers, rarely working with teachers from other grades or disciplines.

Empathetic practices

Each teacher is on numerous teams, working with those who teach the same grade or subject matter, but also with colleagues on meta-issues such as DEI, questioning skills, creativity, etc.

How are observations done?

Traditional practices

Observations are scheduled and are one-way events; administrators watch teachers and give feedback.

Empathetic practices

The observation is engulfed in dialogue; conversations between teacher and administrator take place before the lesson and continue afterward.

How is DEI reflected in curriculum?

Traditional practices

Black History Month is the time to recognize the accomplishments of people of color.

Empathetic practices

DEI is embedded in the curriculum and empathy is consciously developed for everyone.

What pedagogy is used?

Traditional practices

Teachers teach the ways that they were taught and expect students to respond to their instruction.

Empathetic practices

Instruction is student-centered. Teachers learn from their students how best to teach them.

What assessments are used?

Traditional practices

Standardized tests and letter grades rule the day, and reporting is one-way communication. Assessment is from the school to the students and to the home.

Empathetic practices

Students, staff, and community members have input on how achievement is defined, measured, and reported. Assessment is part of an ongoing dialogue.

Adapted from: Hoerr, T. R. (2022). The principal as chief empathy officer: Creating a culture where everyone grows. ASCD.

As the table illustrates, everyone benefits in a school led by a CEO. Just as students will learn more when they know that their teacher understands and cares for them, teachers will perform better when they know that their principal understands and cares for them.

What You Can Do

Most importantly, we need to know our staff members as people, not just employees. As busy as we are, we must take the time to be visible, to hang out in the hallways and intentionally not look busy so that we are seen as approachable. We need to be seen as active listeners.

Adding and perfecting these skills will not only make us exceptional leaders in the eyes of staff but will also trickle down to where it matters most: students.

What are some practices you have found helpful to improve empathy and staff morale?

This article was written by Tom for the ASCD In Service blog. The original post can be seen here.


Would you like to keep up with Tom's latest books, articles and research? Sign up for his newsletter.

* indicates required