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Richard Branson is one of the most respected and admired business leaders of our generation. A serial entrepreneur from the age of 16, Branson has built his Virgin brand into a group of around 400 companies and Forbes has recently listed his estimated net worth as $5.2bn.

A powerful brand builder, Branson’s enigmatic personality has brought notoriety that ordinarily belongs to pop culture. Rarely does a business leader become such a household name. His charisma, witty personality and charm has helped him to become one of the most admired and popular business leaders in history.

There are a multitude of positive leadership traits that can be associated to Branson but his empathetic leadership style is something that definitely sets him apart from a lot of other high profile leaders.

Empathy is a relatively recent area of study in the field of leadership and is a term that is often misunderstood. Often mistaken for ‘sympathy’, the misguided perception of empathy is that it is a ‘fluffy’ soft skill aligned to leaders who care too much about how people feel rather than getting things done. However, research and the more informed perception is increasingly demonstrating that empathy is a skill that often separates the ‘Great’ from the ‘Good’ Leaders.

Empathy is essentially about the awareness of people’s feelings, and the ability to apply that awareness to strengthen the connection and to truly engage people. So how does a business benefit from empathy?

Empathetic leaders like Branson lean towards a more collaborative culture where employees are encouraged to express themselves, to contribute and to challenge when it’s appropriate. The benefits of such an environment are that employees are much more likely to feel respected and appreciated, they are more likely to develop loyalty and trust and they are more likely to positively contribute to your business. In short, by demonstrating that you are committed to understanding your employees you are much more likely to have a productive team by your side.

The debate around leadership being an innate or learned skill will always go on, but to become a more empathetic leader there are a core number of behaviours that can be applied and developed.

Listen: Richard Branson has long been advocate of listening to his team. He has proactively structured his businesses in a way that encourages his team to contribute ideas and places great emphasis on listening to his team. Branson recently offered the following advice to budding entrepreneurs, “If you want to stand out as a leader, a good place to begin is by listening.”

Be Attentive to Body Language: An empathetic leader will recognise verbal and non-verbal cues when communicating with their team. Body language very often gives us more indicators than anything else on how someone is feeling and will help you determine how best to respond.

Be Non-Judgmental: Being empathetic does not mean that you have to agree with your employee or sympathise with how they feel but being empathetic means that you are prepared to take a step back and at least try to understand how they feel. Branson recounted a story in his autobiography from his early career where one of his key employees betrayed him through theft. Rather than dismissing him or reacting to his initial instincts, Branson seeked to understand his situation and was rewarded when the employee became a star performer when given a second chance.

Open-Up: Empathy is part of two-way relationship and successful leaders are those who not only understand but seek to be understood. Opening up emotionally with your team does not mean weeping around with a cup of tea and sharing your life story, it is more about making a personal connection by offering some of your inner landscape on a particular topic. Richard Branson has very effectively developed loyalty from his team by sharing some of his vulnerabilities and displaying his emotions for certain socio-political causes.

Branson’s empathetic style has played a large part in his popularity as a leader and he has effectively transcended this quality throughout the fabric of his business empire.

The next part of the 'Traits of an Effective Leader' series will focus on ‘Resilience’ and a feature another high profile leader.