Why Leader’s Brains Can Lose the Ability to Empathize and How You Can Prevent It Happening to You

The Monday Morning Manager Series #6

Wendy Scott
4 min readMar 6, 2022


Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

The most crucial skills you can have as a leader are your people skills.

In your old pre-leader role, your technical skills were the most important thing for you to cultivate. You still require specialized skills as a leader, but leading and motivating your team and having empathy is more important.

To lead your team well, you must understand people. Developing your emotional intelligence and learning to empathize with your team is vital.

People who have been leaders for many years can lose the ability to empathize. The parts of their brain that deal with empathy shrink, and they become incapable of putting themselves in the place of others.

But why does this happen?

A study by Dr. Sukhvinder Obhi showed that when someone feels powerful, they feel less empathy.

“And when he [Obhi]put the heads of the powerful and the not-so-powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy.” — Jerry Useem, Power Causes Brain Damage, The Atlantic

Leaders who are used to people agreeing with them, laughing at their jokes, and never challenging them feel powerful. They no longer have to modify their behavior to be accepted.

I’ve seen it myself, and I’m sure you have too. Meetings where everybody laughs at the bosses’ jokes, no one argues when an executive puts forward a poor idea, and no one contradicts what they know to be untruths.

“No one wanted to offer ideas once Steve had declared the right answer. Since his promotion, Steve had become less of a team player and more of a superior who knew better than others. In short, he had lost his empathy.” — Lou Solomon, Becoming Powerful Makes You Less Empathetic, hbr.org

The rest of us who are not in such glorified roles have to work hard to gain the respect of our peers and get along with our teams. If we don’t, we soon get a metaphorical smack such as a telling-off from our boss for…



Wendy Scott

L&D professional writing practical, step-by-step leadership and training & development articles to help leaders, managers & trainers grow their careers.