Self-Care, Empathy, And Agility Empower Teams

The volume, velocity, and complexity of change brought by digitization; rapidly accelerating technologies such as 5G, AI, and quantum; climate change; demographic shifts; and the pandemic have upended the way we live, connect, work, travel, and learn. Over the past two years, complex changes forced by the pandemic across all aspects of life have forced leaders to adapt and develop new skills to continue being effective. Today, leadership traits look quite different from two years ago. Leaders are more tuned into self-care, empathy, and vulnerability not because they are weaker but rather because they are more self-aware, realistic, and authentic. This article discusses three traits critical to effective leadership today: self-care, empathy, and agility.

3 Traits Critical To Effective Leadership Today

1. Self-Care

Traditionally, leaders have downplayed self-care as soft and fuzzy indulgence that doesn’t align with their steely nerves and fast-paced lives. In her recent Harvard Business Review article, Dr. Palena Neale points out that when leaders practice self-care, they become better at caring for their teams and the mission. When I think of self-care, I always think of the maxim “in case of emergency, put on your oxygen mask first before helping others,” which rings true now more than ever. In times of crisis, taking care of ourselves is vital. We need to remain resilient to tackle the challenges coming toward us. Taking care of ourselves builds resilience in both body and mind.

We can make our bodies more resilient by exercising consistently, eating healthy food, and getting enough sleep. A more resilient body results in a more resilient mind. The Roman poet Juvenal famously said, “a healthy mind in a healthy body.” Workplace Wellness expert Rachel Boehm says that self-care, including exercise, nutrition, sleep, and stress management, “builds resilience like compound interest [1].” As Dr. Neale points out, leaders who exercise, eat healthily and get enough sleep are more clear-minded, empathetic, and agile.

Practicing self-care is about building new habits. Exercising twenty minutes per day, eating more vegetables and less processed foods, and sleeping eight hours per night are good starts. Most likely, you will not be able to implement all these changes effectively overnight. As a leader, you will need to start small and build on these habits daily. In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes that the best way to create a new habit is to understand the habit’s cue, routine, and reward. He calls self-care a “keystone habit,” as it can positively influence other habits. Journaling is a quick and easy way leaders can use when practicing new habits.

2. Empathy

The second vital leadership skill is empathy. Many leaders tend to regard this skill as being too “soft.” Being empathetic allows us to connect more meaningfully with others as we strive to understand their feelings and perspectives from their point of view. Empathy is critical in business and understanding customer needs. In design thinking practicing empathy is the first step in improving the User Experience, which is foundational to developing and delivering winning products and services [2]. IDEO, the leading design thinking organization, shows in this video that empathy is about walking in another person’s shoes and trying to see, hear, and feel what that person sees, hears, and feels [3].

This skill is not easy and requires practice. A recent New York Times article offers some actionable tips on how to practice empathy, including talking to new people, looking at things from another’s perspective, and working together for a joint cause [4]. All these tips can be adapted in the workplace, especially aligning together as a team for the joint mission of the organization and serving the customer.

As a leader, you could talk with people in the organization you have not met before over a virtual “coffee” meeting. You could shadow team members, customers, or other stakeholders for a day, in person or virtually, and try to see your organization’s products and services with their eyes. This exercise can be eye-opening and can ignite new ideas and improvements on how you design and deliver products and services. Practicing empathy toward your team, and together with your team, toward the customer, can have significant positive outcomes for both the employee and the customer experience.

3. Agility

According to the Oxford Languages dictionary, agility is the ability to move quickly and easily. Agility enables leaders and their teams to tackle change and withstand crises so that they can come up with new ideas and new ways to tackle unexpected problems resulting from a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environment.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla exercised agility and strongly encouraged his team to do the same during their nine-month race to develop the vaccine against COVID-19. In his book Moonshot, Dr. Bourla discusses how he continuously removed barriers and pushed the team to think and act beyond all boundaries to achieve the impossible feat of developing the vaccine in nine months instead of the industry norm of nine years. He repeatedly pushed to remove mental and process barriers, offered unlimited resources, and made swift decisions to always follow the more agile and often riskier path, especially when it came down to choosing between the “good enough” or racing for something better against a ticking clock. Essentially, Dr. Bourla, by modeling agility in his way of thinking and actions, created an environment of psychological safety for his team to do the same.

As Timothy Clark discusses in his Harvard Business Review article, work environments that foster high psychological safety by rewarding vulnerability create the space for teams to strive higher and achieve unprecedented innovative outcomes [5]. Conversely, low psychological safety environments, weighed by fear, result in survival mode results.


Leaders have an immense responsibility to empower their team and to hold them accountable to deliver performance outcomes aligned with the organization’s mission. Because of the unprecedented challenges brought on by the pandemic, leaders had to adapt and today, research and practice show that leadership traits are changing to include a greater focus on self-care, empathy, and agility. When leaders practice these three leadership traits they are more effective and better equipped to help their teams thrive and, together, deliver unprecedented mission outcomes.


[1] Let’s Talk Mental Health at Work. Yours.

[2] Design Thinking

[3] A Lesson in Empathy

[4] How to Be More Empathetic

[5] Agile Doesn’t Work Without Psychological Safety

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