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Empathy: The Essence of Digital Leadership (feat. Erik Qualman)

Jan 9, 2024

Digital leadership and innovation is most impactful when paired with a very human skill:  empathy.


Digital leadership involves integrating human-centered principles with a commitment to technological progress. This means mindfully caring for  the well-being of employees and customers while pursuing the newest digital tools. The most successful leaders actively search out new tools that allow their business to empathetically connect with teams, customers, clients, and partners.


Erik Qualman is the #1 best-selling author of five books on digital leadership and was voted the 2nd Most Likable Author in the World. His socialnomics work has been featured on 60 Minutes, in the Wall Street Journal, and has been used by the National Guard and NASA. Qualman is a current professor of Digital Leadership at Northwestern University and his materials are used in over 500 universities. Erik’s animation studio works with some of the world’s leading brands including Disney, Oreo, Chase, and Cartier.


In this episode, Erik Qualman shares three digital leadership strategies that businesses and individuals can implement in order to navigate the intersection of empathy and technology effectively. 



Leverage Digital Tools to Form Connections


Digital leadership does not merely center around the exploration of the evolving digital landscape. It also focuses on merging what Erik calls the essence of both the Flintstones and the Jetsons; the integration of digital tools as a means of forging connections with teams, clients, and partners. With this definition in mind, Erik believes that successful digital leadership requires empathy.


  • Striving to truly understand the customer’s needs. Using technology to conduct surveys, and define opportunities where they can share about their experience. Rather than explaining away their complaints, ask yourself why this need matters to them. Look past the physical need to the psychological and emotional need that your customers ultimately want you to meet. Then ask yourself if technology can help you meet that need.


  • Exploring the needs and experiences of your team members. Engage your team’s unique perspective on their role within the company. Rather than telling them what technology they need to do their job successfully, ask them what technology they wish they had, what processes they wish were simpler, or if they know of any tools that could positively impact their daily tasks.


Understanding customer needs, empathizing with team members, and leveraging digital tools to bridge these connections fosters a culture of empathy, breeds loyalty and trust, and paves the way for sustainable success.



Prioritize Customer Experience Amid Digital Shifts


Leaders who embrace digital advancements are more equipped to stay agile in response to the customer’s ever-evolving needs and desires. 


Erik shares a powerful example from Disney. With the technological advancement of phone cameras, Disney faced a pivotal dilemma regarding photography in front of Cinderella’s castle. Historically professional photographers were the only people taking pictures of visitors in this location. By allowing guests to use their own cameras, the park was losing money from the professional photos. In a senior executive committee meeting, they were on the verge of banning people from using their iphones as a result.  But Erik encouraged them to focus on the end goal—customer satisfaction – and allow anyone to take pictures with their phones. What they didn’t expect was that individual photos resulted in free marketing. The happiest place on earth all of a sudden became the most Instagramed place on earth and the customer was happy. It’s a great example of adapting to change and utilizing technology in innovative ways to meet customer and business needs.


When faced with a customer experience challenge, consider instead the technological opportunity by asking these three questions:


  • What is our ultimate goal?
  • What opportunities exist with this new technology?
  • What potential benefits have we not yet considered?


Balance Education and Human Touch


Leaders who use education to empower themselves and their employees are more effective in harnessing technology’s full potential. Take the initiative to learn how to effectively utilize digital tools more consciously. Here are three things you can do this week to educate yourself:


  • Subscribe to a business and technology newsletter to stay up-to-date with all the latest digital trends in your industry.
  • As a customer, pay attention to how other industries use technology to meet your needs. Could this translate to your industry? 
  • Ask people in your network how they’re responding to advancements in AI and digital technology.  Set up a call with 3 or 4 other leaders to discuss and “mastermind” how you each might integrate new tools.


While leveraging technology is crucial, maintaining a human touch remains indispensable. Embracing tools like ChatGPT should go hand-in-hand with human oversight. Understanding the limitations and complementing technology with human intuition ensures a holistic and effective approach grounded in empathy.


Integrating empathy into leadership, embracing innovation, and empowering others through education are the stepping stones toward fostering a digitally driven yet empathetic future. As Qualman’s teachings emphasize, the path to digital leadership isn’t solely paved with technological advancements, but is fueled by the understanding, compassion, and adaptability that empathetic leadership embodies.


Erik also shares…

  • How fear impacts innovation
  • The role history plays in digital leadership
  • The 20-20-20 rule and how it impacts business success


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