The scientific basis for training empathy in leaders

By Sara van Leeuwen, Principal /

How empathetic are you? Has anyone ever given you feedback about it? Do you sometimes wish you could be more empathetic? As Warren Bennis wrote in his book, On Becoming a Leader, “One reason that leaders are able to promulgate their vision is because they are exquisitely attuned to their followers and feel their pain, their wants, their needs. Leaders in every field are richly endowed with empathy.” As most leadership experts today would agree, the ability to empathize is a prerequisite for successful leadership. Leaders need a high degree of empathy to build trust with their employees; to create a sense of connectedness and belonging; to be sensitive to the emotional states and desires of their team members; and to coach and inspire their followers to act and achieve a shared vision. Without empathy, leaders will not achieve the impact necessary to hold the people within an organization together and continuously drive the business toward success in a competitive and changing environment.

So, if you need to be empathetic to be an effective leader – can empathy be trained? Are the so called “natural born leaders” the only ones who stand a chance in today’s competitive environment, or can those who are less endowed with the ability to empathize, transform themselves and become more empathetic? The common belief among leadership coaches today is that the latter is true, and many offer a large variety of exercises and techniques that can be adopted to train empathy. However, does the belief that empathy can be altered or learned have any scientific basis at all?

In 2008, a neuroscientific paper was published by Antoine Lutz and his colleagues (1) indicating that the practice of a specific meditation, called loving-kindness-compassion meditation, alters the activation of circuitries in the brain linked to empathy. Specifically, when participants were practicing loving-kindness-compassion meditation, the areas in their brain linked to empathy responded differently to emotional sounds than when they were not meditating. This suggests that an individual can voluntarily impact his or her own empathy. More recent research by Grit Hein and her colleagues published in 2015 (2) confirmed earlier research that empathy can be learned by creating unexpected positive experiences with others and, furthermore, uncovered the neurobiological mechanism for this profound plasticity in empathic reactions.

Together, these results support the idea that leaders can voluntarily impact their empathy and, beyond that, that they can learn to be more empathetic by creating positive experiences with the people around them. This concurs with one of our strong leadership credos at Manres: Trust needs touch. If you want to be more empathetic, then seek contact with your fellow beings and empathize more. It can be as simple and as powerful as that.

We wish you courage to work on your empathy,

Your Manres team 


1 Lutz, A., Brefczynski-Lewis, J., Johnstone, T., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion by compassion meditation: effects of meditative expertise. PloS one, 3, e1897.

2 Hein, G., Engelmann, J. B., Vollberg, M. C., & Tobler, P. N. (2016). How learning shapes the empathic brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113, 80-85.