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The Story Of How Microsoft’s CEO Learned Empathy, And How It Led Him To Success

In 2014, Microsoft saw its third CEO in Satya Narayana Nadella. Nadella managed to climb up the Microsoft ladder from being a low-profile computer scientist at the firm to President of the Server & Tools Division before he became the tech giant’s CEO.

But unlike what people expect from CEOs and company leaders, Nadella says that the key to becoming a good leader and innovator is not in the detaching of oneself from their employees and their customers. It’s becoming one with the customers and the employees, understanding the market, knowing exactly what they need. And to be able to be that person, Nadella says that one has to be empathic, above everything.

In a recent six-part podcast series called “The Secret Life of CEOs,” Freakonomics Radio talked to a number of CEOs to know the secret behind their successes—and in talking to Nadella, they have found the secret to his management success.

When Nadella was starting out, he tells Freakonomics Radio, he wasn’t always the most empathic. “When I was interviewing, and somebody said, ‘What would you do if you see a baby on the street crying after having fallen down?’ I answered, thinking this is some trick question. Maybe there is some algorithm that I’m missing, and said ‘I’d call 911,’ only to have that manager get up, and walk me out of the room saying, ‘That’s the absolute bullshit answer.’ And if you see a baby falling down, you pick them up and hug them. And I was devastated because I remember thinking about it and I said, ‘How could I not get that?’”

But on the 13th of August 1996, his life changed. His wife gave birth to their first child, Zain, who had a severe case of cerebral palsy.

“It took me multiple years to even understand what had happened because in some sense I was more about, ‘Why did this happen to us? What happened to me?’ And it’s only by observing my wife really step up, give up her career, and do all things she was doing to care for Zain-that’s when I realized nothing happened to me. In fact, really, something has happened to my son, and it was time for me to step up and see life through his eyes, and do what I should do as a parent and as a father. That’s, perhaps, the biggest lesson for me around empathy. And it’s only developed through your life’s experience. It’s not something that’s really endowed on you. But as long as—with every passing year with, perhaps, every passing mistake you make—you develop more of a sense of being able to see life through other people’s eyes, that's going to make you a more effective parent, more effective colleague, and a more effective partner.”

For years, Nadella struggled. But his biggest takeaway from his experience: greater empathy. And this empathy has led him to become one of best and most innovative CEOs the world has seen.

“Empathy make(s) you a better innovator,” Nadella said during an on stage interview at Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit last year. “If I look at the most successful products we [at Microsoft] have created, it comes with that ability to meet the unmet, unarticulated needs of customers.”

And this kind of outlook, this level of empathy, has resonated with the new direction the company is taking after Nadella took the helm. Now, Microsoft’s new official goal, according to Nadella, “is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.”