“Empathetic leadership.”

“Leadership and empathy.”

“Leading with empathy.”

Since 2004, various combinations of these search terms have risen steadily — sometimes steeply — in frequency according to Google.

This makes sense: in the current business climate, leaders are taught and encouraged to be more empathetic — and to leverage a variety of emotional intelligence qualities. Why? Because the logic holds that empathetic leaders with high social awareness are able to readily pick up emotional cues present in the workplace and adjust accordingly. The theory is that empathetic leaders will be more supportive of their employees and will therefore get better results.

In empathetic leadership, the leader’s job is to read and effectively react to emotional cues. Empathy is cast not just as a positive altruistic quality, but an answer to many leadership challenges.

Simon Sinek at his theatrical best says “Leadership is not about being IN CHARGE. Leadership is about taking care of those IN YOUR CHARGE.” One can only wonder how this gibberish passes as insight. Not to mention the use of the words “in our charge,” which reeks of a patriarchal, parent-child dynamic.

What Sinek fails to note is the fact that leadership is inherently about being in charge. About leading, not following. A generation of leaders are being fed models and theories that discount the leader as someone who sets the pace, carries the vision, and leverages their authority while motivating and engaging their direct reports. From this vantage point, empathy is noble and good; authority is worrisome and bad.

While we agree that leaders need to be attuned to their employees’ emotions —and at times demonstrate empathy— there is a more proactive (rather than reactive) role they can play.

At a recent meeting of leaders in California, Sachin Jain, Chief Executive Officer of SCAN Group and SCAN Health Plan stated “while leaders need to understand their employees feelings, they should focus also on shaping how they feel.” In other words, leaders’ conscious mastery of their own emotions and how this effects others is paramount.

How change is handled by leaders highlights the distinction between reacting versus leading. When announcing change, overly empathetic leaders will allow all of the emotions to be on display; they’ll play whack-a-mole trying to demonstrate support to each individual. Great leaders, however, narrow the emotional playing field by first taking the time to share their own emotions around the change.

Research has documented that we can catch each other’s emotions, a phenomenon known as “emotional contagion,” even at work. One employee’s anxiety and panic can spread like a virus through an entire office, lowering morale and productivity. What Sachin knows is that the leader’s emotions have a contagious quality, and smart leaders harness their emotions to create a work environment that is positive, optimistic and authentic.