When companies made the digital pivot in March 2020, organizations’ ability

to move to a work-from-anywhere environment cast a favorable light on CIOs and

technology leaders. These actions bred confidence among countless CEOs to lean more heavily on technology leaders to help identify new ways to grow the business through digital products and services and to help devise new Go-to-Market strategies and digital customer experiences.

This helps explain why 60% of executives cite digital transformation as their most

critical growth driver in 2022, according to PwC.

HMG Strategy Founder and CEO Hunter Muller recently spoke with Gautham 

Pallapa, Ph.D., Executive Advisor at VMware and award-winning author of

Leading with Empathy: Understanding the Needs of Today’s Workforce,

about the evolving role of technology leaders along with the steps they can take

to foster digital transformation.

Hunter Muller: Gautham, it’s great to see you again. So, after nearly 3 years, the pandemic has all sorts of implications regarding the impact on leadership styles and effective leadership. What is your book ‘Leading with Empathy’ all about and why is empathy so critically important?

Gautham Pallapa: Great to be with you today, Hunter. As we know, the world

has shifted to a contactless, digital-first remote experience and it’s crucial now, more than ever, for companies to transform. Over the last 28 months, people have been trying to rethink and reimagine how they transform their organizations and as a result of that, three traits have become essential for a digital transformation leader. The first one is authenticity. That has become one of the most crucial traits that a digital transformation leader has to embrace and demonstrate.

And by authentic, I mean that you keep what I call the `say-to-do’ ratio as close to one as possible. This means that if you say you’re going to do something, you have to follow up and do it because your teams and your workforce and the market and everyone are looking to you to be that authentic person. But in order to be that you also want to be approachable. You want to be attentive. You want to be appreciative. You want to be connected and you want to be vulnerable. So, there are several things that go in there.

The second trait is empathic leadership because everyone has been suffering. There’s been so much stress and anxiety that people have been facing. So, one of the primary goals of a leader has become to reduce pain. Be it for the customer or be it for the workforce, that is what people are looking at as value that they want to derive out of it, and this requires empathy.

The third trait is to become a strategic leader. Because suddenly, all the various strategies and initiatives that were put in place for 28 months have gone out of the door. People have changed the way they think. Customer experience has changed, and so digital leaders must really rethink and reimagine their current strategies to achieve their business outcomes and workforce happiness. These three things are what elevate people as humans and increase empathic leadership within the organization. This is what excites me, that we are looking at a new era where empathic leadership and leading with empathy is so important in our workforce.

HM: Why does your brand matter more than ever?

GP: As I said, people have to be authentic, and they also need to be genuine.

To be genuine means that they need to develop what they mean to the world and what they mean to themselves. Having a higher purpose and trying to align with something that is passionate to you is really important.

For example, I have two primary beliefs. My first belief is that happy people are productive people. My second belief is that strategic disruption -- not disruption for the sake of destruction but strategic disruption -- is what leads to progress. With these two primary beliefs that I have, I use these as my North Star, and it guides me in every single thing that I do.

Because I believe that happy people are productive people, I believe that empathic leadership, and therefore, trying to help people overcome their stress and anxiety is really important. And by people, I mean the workforce because they are the true value creators within the organization.

This also applies to our customers, because at the end of the day, if the customer doesn’t get value out of something that you’re creating, you are not really delivering business value. So, trying to disrupt this hyper-dynamic environment and delivering that customer value and that workforce value and making people happy and excited to follow along with you is what’s really important and what drives me. That is what I believe is my brand and what I do on a day-to-day basis.

As an executive advisor at VMware, I partner with executives and the C-suite in various industry verticals and help them with their transformation. Helping them change their strategies around people, processes, and culture before they go into technology. Because technology can only be an enabler and doesn’t really generate value. Instead, it’s the people. So, for me, people are the value players and that’s what I drive towards.

Everyone needs to start building up their brand, trying to identify what they really want to be, why they exist, and what is their higher purpose and building their brand. Leaders should consider and think about how they can describe themselves in five words or in a sentence. That kind of introspection is crucial right now.

HM: What’s the best way to get started?

GP: Start off with a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats)

analysis of yourself. You want to identify what your strengths are. You want to recognize what your weaknesses are, and your focus needs to be on improving upon your strengths and not working on your weaknesses. You need to acknowledge them, work around them, and put in countermeasures, but your strengths are what’s going to get there. And to understand what there is, you want to understand the `why.’ Why do you exist? What is your purpose? What makes you happy?

There’s a very nice Japanese technique called the Ikigai Diagram that can be used to identify what you’re good at, what you’re passionate about, and what you can get paid for and it’s that intersection of things that makes you very passionate. So, I would say those two things are really important, the Ikigai diagram to understand your purpose and the why. And then your SWOT analysis to understand how you can get there and then the `what’ becomes your goals exercise. Within 1 to 3 years, what you want to accomplish and then 5 to 10 years to accomplish this, and so on.

I would say these are the three simplest ways to start off to get to your North


HM: What inspired you to write this book?

GP: My inspiration was my mother. This book is a eulogy to her.

She was a leading researcher in HIV/AIDS in India. She was a microbiologist, the head of the department for an Ivy League school/medical school in India, and she was an amazingly empathic person. She had a saying: “If you have not done something to improve the life of a human in some way, then you have not really lived.” That sentiment stuck with me, and I wanted to follow in her footsteps and become a doctor, but I took a different route.

Throughout my life, empathy and passion for helping humans have been really, really close to my heart. I’ve always been what I call `healthcare adjacent.’  In my Ph.D., I focused on improving the quality of life of patients who are suffering from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s in assisted healthcare facilities, using smart technologies, IoT, and smartphones.

What I started seeing over the last 28 months -- especially when the pandemic started -- was that the stress and anxiety levels shot up for people and they were not able to handle and manage all these various things that were happening. They were so scared. I mean, we got impacted at the physiological level and that threw us back a number of years. We went to our base fears, and I recognized a number of these telltale signs because I’ve succumbed to stress and anxiety in the past, when I was younger, as well.

So, I started empathizing with people and started talking about it and trying to help them, creating workshops and trying to improve their stress and anxiety levels. Then it was suggested that I share these various experiences that I’ve had with the world, and this is how the genesis of the book came about.

I started writing about it, researching, and trying to understand the importance of stress. Sharing personal stories that my mother and I had when I was growing up, how she tried to help people, and how she was empathic. All the various techniques that leaders need to embrace in the companies within the organizations because everyone was struggling with stress at different levels. This includes working in hybrid work environments. People didn’t know how to work remotely. Some companies weren’t even equipped for that. So, sharing all those techniques and things that I’ve learned, the failures and successes and so on and that’s how the book came about, and it’s been very fulfilling.

I’m honored that it’s been received well, not only by psychotherapists, but it has also been on a couple of lists, as well. And it’s been recognized as something that helps with the empathic deficiency that we have within society today.

Key Takeaways:


  • Digital transformation success isn’t just dependent on utilizing technology and refining processes for new products, services and customer experiences. Leadership – namely authentic and empathetic leadership – plays a critical role in helping teams to meet their objectives
  • SWOT self-analysis, the development of Ikigai diagrams and other techniques can help leaders take a methodical approach to better understanding themselves and the value they offer to business and society
  • Empathetic leadership includes not only an understanding of the challenges that people have faced in recent months but also recognizing that there may be unknown issues that people are wrestling with