Servant Leader Principle #2 – Empathy

“Empathy” by Sammi WS Chan is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

For the first principle of Servant Leadership, click here

Servant leaders try to understand others. They will picture themselves in the place of those they serve. Servant leaders know that people need to be accepted and recognized for their special and unique characteristics

BSA NYLT Syllabus, module Servant Leadership

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.

Deeply embedded in this concept of empathy is the point of seeing the person inside, of knowing the person. This seeing assumes good intentions from the start. It involves setting aside preconceived notions, snap judgments, internal biases, and other shortcuts we use to filter our senses. Empathy is a radical remapping of our usual interaction.

Example from Jesus

Jesus, in his interactions with the woman at the well in John 4, uses this type of empathy as He pulls down barrier after barrier, both expressed and not expressed. The impact is clear – when the disciples came back and silently judged her, this empathetic interaction did not fade:

The woman took the hint and left. In her confusion she left her water pot. Back in the village she told the people, “Come see a man who knew all about the things I did, who knows me inside and out. Do you think this could be the Messiah?” And they went out to see for themselves.

John 4:28-30, The Message

This deep empathetic conversation led to a whole village to beg Jesus to stay longer, and many more believed Jesus as their Messiah.

Focus on the Other means Listening

Servant leaders use empathy to focus outside themselves, using their listening skills to acknowledge and understand the person within:

The servant leader strives to understand and empathize with others. People need to be accepted and recognized for their special and unique spirits. One assumes the good intentions of co-workers and colleagues and does not reject them as people, even when one may be forced to refuse to accept certain behaviors or performance. The most successful servant leaders are those who have become skilled empathetic listeners.

Larry C. Spears Character and Servant Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders

One of the best introductions and ways to express empathy is by listening; most times, the concept of listening and empathy are intertwined (like the “skilled empathetic listeners” ending the quote above). It’s difficult otherwise to understand the person without allowing them to express themselves, and using this listening to burrow deeply into how they perceive themselves.

Empathy has a cost and requires a decision

However, this listening must come at a cost to you too – the toll is love and caring. To have a platform in someone else, you must not only go past neutral objectivity, but go further into reaching out and caring.

“No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

Theodore Roosevelt

I remember one time I was forced into a 16+ hour car ride with a coworker whom I didn’t have much interaction with. Others had warned me that this would be difficult, even draining, due to the separate worlds we inhabited. However, in living the process of empathy, I decided to set aside the preconceptions, and approach from a caring aspect (I called it “leaning in”). In this, I learned much more about his life, found places of commonality, and even found myself enjoying the journey. Interactions with him from then on were more frequent, with hellos turning into more questions. I can’t tell you what exactly changed, whether he or I – but we changed.

Summing It Up

Empathy requires you as a Servant Leader to decide to move outside yourself, assume good intentions, care for the other, and listen. The impacts of empathy can be far reaching, even transforming communities with its power. But the biggest transformation is of you, the servant who is allowed to walk in another’s shoes.

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