Back to the F**kture:   Mimi Nicklin

sector - media & technology
type - podcast
Mimi Nicklin is softening the CEO edge. Successful leaders are empathetic ones, according to the best-selling author, leadership coach, strategic thinker and CEO. They are also great perspective takers who understand the context of our decisions, as well as the moods and emotions that motivate us to make them. 


If that sounds simple – it isn’t. In fact, as Nicklin identifies in her book, Softening the Edge, while CEOs think everything about the value of an MBA, they wouldn’t look twice at an MEA – a Masters of Empathy degree (my term). And yet the skills acquired here, if such a degree existed, would undoubtedly make their future happen, and profitably so.  

For empathy, as she discusses in my latest Back to the F**kture podcast, isn’t just a nice-to-have softness or character trait, it’s a hard skill to master, and a tougher one to deploy; hence, her book that very much works like our mythical MEA. 

‘Empathetic leaders,’ as she tells it, ‘see how others are seeing the world, understand why they are doing what they are doing, but crucially, they are doing it with them, feeling it with them, being it with them, so that they can understand ‘impact’ and consequence from their team’s perspective. That in itself unlocks a new kind of flourishing that no amount of top-down, old-style corporate leadership will ever succeed in doing.  

Surprisingly – given the amount of talking that the said CEOs tend to do – listening lies at the heart of empathetic leadership, something she discovered early on in her career as strategic director, vice-president and creative officer in places as far afield as Hong Kong, Dubai, Cape Town, London and Singapore: listening, but doing it in an open, active and collaborative way. 

Yes, even listening requires us to be proactive in our supposed inactiveness, otherwise, as she tells it, we simply nod and get on with the job as we would like to be done. 

And empathy, like charity, begins at our home quarters, or in our new hybrid work states, where we practise it with our teams first, then our customers – and not the other way around. Nor is it a skill to be housed in our HR teams, but one that must be set as a core KPI for all teams regardless of rank. Otherwise, we risk contributing to what Barack Obama once referred to as an ‘empathy deficit’, which doesn’t sound all that bad until you hear Nicklin explain it. 

‘In 2010, the University of Michigan released the findings of a study that tracked thousands of college students over 30 years and found that the current cohort were 40% less empathetic than their forebears. 

‘More disturbingly,’ she continues, ‘during the same period the levels of students’ self-reported narcissism had reached equally challenging heights, according to research by Jean M Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University.’

Simply put, as we unlearned how to walk in the footsteps of others – a key factor in developing our sense of community, cohesion, culture and common purpose – we were becoming more self-obsessed, more self-serving and less likely to be curious about, listen to, or support others in our networks. 

And yet, when you identify the skills that are most likely to help us motivate teams, define vision, determine purpose and set future goals, the ones we have been pulling away from for all these years – curiosity, kindness, reciprocity, empathy and open active listening – are the very work state skills that tomorrow’s CEOs need to inspire people and drive profit. ‘Despite this,’ she says, ‘we still define these as ‘soft’ skills – and ones that sit outside the remit of corporate talents to have – rather than expecting them to be core requirements for the future CEO to demonstrate or learn.’ 

As to how we do it, again being empathetic lies at the heart of everything: so, decision-making that is participatory and consensual; a vision that is agreed and shared; honesty that is encouraged and rewarded; curiosity that is cultivated and embraced; active open listening that is demonstrated and applauded. 

Published by:

8 December 2023

Author: Martin Raymond & Mimi Nicklin



And finally, crucially, the removal of metaphorical walls, or hierarchies, that inhibit conversation and facilitate siloed thinking. The latter, as Nicklin reminds us, ‘as always, leads back to a place of isolation, and self-serving decision-making – a trait that becomes more apparent as leaders think about themselves and how to serve their positioning, rather than serving or listening to others’. And listening is the key, the cornerstone to becoming that brave, new empathetic CEO – as in chief empathy officer.

Softening the Edge is published by The Dreamwork Collective and available from its online bookshop, or as a paperback, audiobook or downloadable from Amazon.  

You can listen to Mimi Nicklin in conversation with The Future Laboratory co-founder and LS:N Global editor-in-chief Martin Raymond by clicking here, sitting back and listening to how to become a better leader. 

Tune in to the podcast on Audioboom, Spotify, Apple.