Excellence with Empathy – Healthy Leadership for Yourself & Your Teams 

I run a business. I’m also a very type-A, hard-as-nails, okay-with-criticism type of person. I see all the faults and all the flaws. I’m hard on myself and others. It’s a little bit of my perfectionistic nature coming through. It’s a toxic trait, perhaps. 

But it’s also very helpful. It’s why I’m great* at consulting, coaching and mentoring – I can see the gaps, the weaknesses, the holes – and challenge people’s thinking to find solutions. 

But it’s not so helpful when criticism and constantly seeing the flaws, gaps and faults is all you see and all you share. 

It’s not so helpful when you don’t counterbalance the critique with praise – honest praise; acknowledging the wins. 

Criticism compounded over time without this counterbalance can negatively impact your mental health. 

I’ve previously shared posts around ‘Clapping for yourself’ and ‘Celebrating the small wins’ on here as a great way to improve your mental health because it is something that I have to continually remind myself to do. 

But sometimes I forget. 

So when I do, as I have at times throughout this year, and possibly probably will in the future (because I’m human and flawed!), I remind myself to lead and live as a woman with ‘excellence with empathy’. 

Excellence: Cognitive Wellbeing 

Excellence causes me to reframe my perfectionistic tendencies.

To strive for excellence means to strive for progress, which forces you to recognise movement from where you were to where you are now, so that even if you’ve not hit the big end goal of 100% metrics, at least you’ve moved forward a few percentage points – and that deserves celebrating. The pursuit of excellence is something I’ve written about before.

BUT, I realise that ‘excellence’ is a scale that varies for everyone. My idea of excellence – as opposed to perfection – is 99% (as opposed to a perfect 100 – ha!); whereas another person’s idea of ‘excellence’ may be a 59% pass mark – because that’s what they define as ‘extremely good or outstanding’ [Google’s definition of ‘excellence] in their own world based on where they’ve been, where they are and where they hope to be. 

And that’s where ‘empathy’ steps in. 

Empathy: Emotional Wellbeing

Empathy acknowledges difference. It’s warm, not cold like excellence might sometimes be. It is a positive protection mechanism for your mental health. Empathy is emotion; whereas excellence is objective and factual. Well, some aspects of excellence anyway. 

As an illustration, excellence in my sport may be hitting my objectives for the 2022 Outdoor season – soaring to a PB [personal best]; qualifying for a World Championship final and finishing high up the rankings there; and placing at the top of the podium at a Home [Birmingham, UK] Commonwealth Games…

See what I mean by that 99% metric of my definition of excellence?

But to achieve excellence in my objectives, I must choose to live with excellence every single day – well, at least 99% of the time, anyway. 

Excellence in Practice: Battling Perfectionism

What does that look like practically? 

Empathy, on the other hand, is the emotional, subjective undercurrent that’s integral to excellence; the ‘wellbeing’ of this cognitive and behavioural state. 

As an illustration, think – Sir Richard Branson vs Steve Jobs. 

Case Study: Sir Richard Branson – successful with high standards, but seems to be quite friendly and caring with his staff and his businesses, clearly caring about their mental health. Read more on Branson’s empathetic approach to leadership after Virgin Atlantic made 1,200 staff redundancies in 2011.

Case Study: Steve Jobs – successful with high standards, but seemingly a bit of a tyrant. 

I don’t want to be a tyrant. 

I think that’s both a note to lead myself  and live as a woman of excellence with empathy, but equally applies to leading my teams. 

I DISCUSS LEADING TEAMS AND ATHLETES BEING CEOS IN THIS PODCAST EPISODE HERE. 

Excellence with Empathy: Mental Health Awareness 

Some strategies I’ve been able to employ since adding ‘with empathy’ to my standards of excellence over the last couple of months have been:

For my team

  • A feedback sandwich / also called: a crap sandwich  (downside: can sometimes feel inauthentic)
  • Recognising and praising frequently – making a mindful choice/putting a reminder in my phone to actively search for something to praise my team about, so they’re not always hearing what needs to be corrected, but also what needs to be celebrated! This one feels a lot more authentic and effective. 

‘You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.’

English Proverb

For myself 

  • When I’m feeling rubbish, e.g. a ⅖, giving myself grace to drop the weight a little or adapt the session, to eat some sugary cereal or to reduce a rep. [Sometimes, a complete day-off is necessary, too. But thankfully my training program already reflects my monthly biological cycle so my weeks fluctuate in intensity to respect my body’s natural rhythms, reducing the need for last-minute days off.] This strategy was established circa October 2014 when I began working with Dan Pfaff at Altis. 
  • Celebrating at least one ‘achievement’ in my training diary as I do my session debriefs (not just the ‘work-ons’). I actually first started doing this around 2018 when I returned to the sport and it really makes the whole process a lot more enjoyable, especially when your training or competitions aren’t going well! Recently, most of my ‘achievements’ had been, ‘I’m healthy’ so I forced myself to dig deeper to find real process/KPI achievements and this forced me to realise that the session didn’t go as badly as I’d originally perceived. So, in this example, excellence is the ‘work-on’; ‘empathy’ is the ‘achievement’ because in your desire to close the gap from where you are to where you want to be, kindness is key. After all, ‘you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.’ [English Proverb].

Ultimately, empathy softens the blow and allows you to still have gratitude and grace in the midst of performances and situations that seem, at first glance, to be less than excellent. Empathy opens your eyes to excellence; it changes your perspective; refocuses or cleans the lens. Hmmm… I love empathy. How about you?

‘The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.’ 

Definition of Empathy

Because without empathy, a life in the pursuit of excellence at times when things go wrong – e.g. injury, under-performance, negative circumstances beyond your control – would be untenable, painful, crushing.  

And that’s not healthy, nor enjoyable. 

So, I hope you can add empathy to your vocabulary and your lifestyle from today onwards. 

Your mental health will thank you for it – now and forever! 

*Great at… I almost changed and downplayed this statement, but actually – why not celebrate your strengths and gifts with words that match it!? I challenge you do the same for yourself!

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