Think about your image of leadership. We tend to think of our leaders as powerful people. So far, our image is “spot on;” leadership is, in fact, powerful. But just what kind of power do we mean?

We understand power to be strength, toughness, even ruthlessness. But we are now no longer “spot on.” In fact, you could say we are “spot off.” Leaders, especially in small organizations like farm, where everyone knows one another, are more effective using fairness, kindness, caring and empathy than using strength and toughness. The power we mentioned in the first paragraph comes from the results the leader creates, not from imposing his or her strength and toughness.

Therein lies the challenge to becoming that effective leader, as kindness, caring and empathy are often viewed as weaknesses. But let’s look at two reasons you should take the risk and become a fair, kind, caring and empathic leader.

Answer this question: as a leader, do you what your followers (your employees) to follow because they want to or because they have to? I am certain your answer is because they want to. Using only the authority, power and strength of your position will result in followers who follow because they have to. In order to have followers (again, employees) who follow because they want to requires both that they trust you and that you have produced positive results. It is fairness, kindness, caring and empathy that build trusting relationships with your followers. This trust motivates employees to produce positive results — no shows of strength required.

The second reason comes from understanding the relationship between business culture and employee productivity and motivation. An unproductive business culture — I call it a negative urgency culture — is characterized by anxiety, frustration, even hostility. These emotions, and thus their resulting unproductive business culture, thrive in organizations that are impersonal with frequent power struggles. We know that a key to effective leadership is leading by example and, thus, setting the tone of the business culture. A leader using strength and toughness is likely to create a negative urgency culture.

The anecdote to a negative urgency culture is a leader who cares about people and uses fairness, caring, kindness and empathy to set an example that develops a business culture that is positive and accomplishment-oriented. I call this a positive urgency culture.

As the farm business leader, you must be strong in supporting the farm, in promoting its vision, in developing its strategy, in implementing that strategy and in standing up for your people. In working with your partners, your employees and your trusted advisors, you will be most effective as an empathic leader showing fairness, kindness, caring and empathy, 

Leadership Lesson: Great leaders rely much more on empathy than on shows of strength.

Bob Milligan is Senior Consultant with Dairy Strategies LLC and Professor Emeritus at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University. He can be reached at or 651-647-0495.