How Tim Cook knocked it out of the park in the empathy league

With his morale-boosting email to staff affected by Hurricane Harvey, Apple’s CEO masterfully showed how leaders can achieve empathy with their workers

There are few things in life more soothing than the message, “I know how you feel.”

Empathy is a precious commodity – much sought after, but not even half as widely available as it should be. And that’s particularly true within leadership. So we must welcome the intervention of someone with a neon-lit public profile riding into the agenda like a one-man cavalry charge to show us all how it’s done. Someone, for instance, like Apple CEO Tim Cook.

Late last month, Cook laid on a masterclass in how organisations should communicate with their people by issuing a staff-wide email to flag the plight of Apple employees caught up in Hurricane Harvey’s destructive sweep across Texas and Louisiana. As reproduced on Buzzfeed, the email was outward-looking and refreshingly free of techno-speak – pitched in a very direct, digestible style. It gave a powerful impression that Cook fully grasped the levels of hardship against which Apple staff in the hurricane’s path were battling.

“Our thoughts are with our employees in the storm zone and the millions of people whose lives have been disrupted by rain, wind and floods,” he wrote. “I want to update you on some of the things Apple has been doing to help, and ways that you can get involved.”

He went on: “On the ground, Apple’s global crisis management team is working to support our employees directly affected by the flooding in Texas. The team is in close contact with Apple employees in the Houston area, and they’re actively doing everything they can to assist, including moving some employees and their families to safety.

“Apple employees in the Houston area have generously been helping people displaced by the flooding by opening their homes to team members and their families, and in some cases, assisting in rescue operations.”

After explaining that Apple had (very cleverly) opened a donations route on the App Store for helping the American Red Cross, Cook added: “Though our stores in the Houston area are still closed today, we’re working hard to get as many as possible open tomorrow to serve people who have been impacted by the storm. Our teams are eager to help with problems large and small, and they know there are lots of people in that area who need it.

“I was in Austin the day before Harvey came ashore, and the team was already bracing for the storm and the long recovery. Today that work continues. At our Austin campuses, we are kicking off a donation drive in partnership with the Central Texas Food Bank and Caffè Macs to collect food, diapers and personal hygiene items — all things that are critical in the aftermath of a storm of this magnitude.”

He signed off with: “Because Texas is home to more than 8,700 of our co-workers, the storm’s impact is felt by all of us. There’s still much to do, and Apple is committed to help.”

The real genius of Cook’s email is that he addressed his employees as a giant family, encouraging those outside the storm zone to put themselves in the shoes of those who were struggling with the floods. So it wasn’t just about Cook showing that he empathised with his staff – he was also promoting empathy on a much wider scale. And with his unselfish style – which muted his own, special status – he placed himself within his employees’ minds as an equal, acknowledging the difficulties of Apple ground troops who were just trying to keep the brand’s regional stores going.

As an aside, he mentioned: “We’re also proud that the US Coast Guard is using Apple products in [its] efforts, with nearly two dozen USCG helicopters specially equipped with iPads to help coordinate search-and-rescue teams.”

It is likely that a handful of employees (already disgruntled) would have cynically interpreted the message as image grooming on Cook’s part. But the prospect of minor grumbles of that nature should never stop a leader from communicating. Far better to do so and accept any type of feedback, than to second-guess the mood and not communicate at all. In more day-to-day matters, the most intimate conversations that leaders are likely to have with their closest staff is the appraisal or performance review discussion. I can’t imagine that process being remotely productive without you demonstrating some form of empathy.

Maya Angelou once said, “I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.” Many leaders are criticised for ‘missing the empathy gene’, but I think Maya was on to something when she referred to courage. Often, when organisations recruit leaders, empathy is not a valued priority. Yet we all know the adage: “People don’t leave companies, they leave managers.” As a leader, empathy is hugely important – but you also need an underlying reserve of courage to open up, and speak from an empathic place.

I think people will be telling two stories about this for years: i) that Apple supported its employees in their time of need, and ii) that Apple products were part of the solution. If I were an Apple employee, I’d be very proud. But as a customer, it also leaves me impressed.

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Image of Tim Cook captured from this Apple video of a keynote speech of June 2016