CEOs Who Face Adversity Are More Empathetic & Better On-Camera Leaders – Here’s What We Can Learn From Them

May 8th, 2018 Vern Oakley

To be a great CEO at the helm of a company that is considered a “best place to work” requires leadership skills that inspire employees at all levels. Making others feel included and important within the organization is key, as is superb communication. It turns out that some of the most successful and inspiring CEOs have used their personal adversity and hardships to become better communicators, and, understandably, strive to put more of an emphasis on inclusivity in the workplace. Overcoming adversity often creates a sense of heightened empathy, understanding of vulnerability, and a desire to connect with people in a meaningful way. It helps people discover who they really are. This humility and focus on connection are the same qualities needed to be a great on-camera leader. If the authenticity and connection is not there, the audience can feel it. The camera unveils truth at 24 frames-per-second.

Below are some examples of CEOs who have overcome adversity and the ways in which they embody empathy and vulnerability. It’s no coincidence that these same individuals exhibit excellent leadership skills on-camera. Here’s what we can learn from them:

Be empathetic
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella believes that empathy has been crucial to his success, saying: “Most people think empathy is just something that you reserve for your life and your family and your friends, but the reality is that it’s an existential priority of a business… empathy is core to innovation.” On a personal level, Nadella’s child was born with severe brain damage and now has cerebral palsy, which may have gone a long way in further developing the empathy that has made him such an incredibly successful businessman and communicator (Nadella is ranked #29 on Glassdoor’s list of top CEOs).

Microsoft has 10s of thousands of employees scattered throughout the world. Communicating to all of them in an empathetic way, to build a connection with his own employees, being on camera is the only way.

Let your differences define you, in the best possible way
We all have characteristics that make us unique – some of which may even be perceived as “weaknesses” in the business world. But by recognizing and embracing the attributes that make us different, we can become more confident in ourselves and in our values. This confidence helps to make us more genuine leaders and communicators.

One standout leader who has embraced his differences is Tim Cook, the current CEO of Apple. Cook is an openly gay man who says he has “seen and experienced many types of discrimination, all of them rooted in the fear of people that are different than the majority.” His experiences have led him to believe in the importance of human rights and human dignity and he has committed himself to upholding these beliefs in life and in business.

Kenneth Frazier is another leader who has used his differences to become a principled and successful businessman. Frazier, the CEO of Merck, was the first individual to resign from one of President Trump’s advisory councils after the President failed to take a strong enough stance against last year’s violent protests in Charlottesville, VA. Frazier’s personal experience as the grandson of a slave has informed his values-based leadership style. He has a track record of doing the right thing in the face of adversity and for being a pioneer in the world of corporate social responsibility. In a country where there are only 4 black CEOs in the Fortune 500, Frazier stands out – not just for the color of his skin, but for his uncompromising commitment to his values.

Cook and Frazier both come across as incredibly genuine in their communication and leadership styles, partly because they’ve embraced the things that make them unique. They’ve had to deal with discrimination and adversity, and have used these struggles to more clearly define who they are and what they stand for.

As a director who works with CEOs, I have seen that empathy, inclusivity, and sincerity are critical attributes for being a successful leader and communicator. Luckily, these are qualities that we can all learn and incorporate into our own personal communication styles. When leaders adapt these traits they become more effective in front of a camera, and often see improvements in company culture and overall morale. Executives who have faced adversity often have a deeper understanding of their values and character, which are qualities that make for a great leader on and off-camera.