Servant Leader as Hat-Wearer

“Lids..” by Gunnshots is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

A recent conversation with a friend and colleague (Hi Steve!) got me thinking about roles as applied to servant leadership. Specifically, that some positional roles given to the leader are at best under tension, and sometimes in opposition to each other.

Multiple hats aren’t only a business problem

Of course, I have a song running through my head as I think this through – Amy Grant’s Hats, where she describes the tension of her life roles as a mother, a wife, and a worker:

It don’t stop
No, it’s never gonna stop
Why do I have to wear so many things on my head?

All because I’m driven

To be the very best for you

Roles in Conflict

The specific example that Steve and I engaged was a set of roles we have defined in Agile Project Management. At our work, we define three roles:

Product OwnerResponsible for maximizing the value of the product and who is ultimately responsible and accountable for the end product that is built.
Scrum Master The servant-leader of the team who keeps track of user stories, plans sprints, and manages the backlog.  Escalates issues to both the Project Manager and the Project Owner
Project ManagerAssigned by the Project Owner; responsible for achieving the project objectives.  Manages according to time and budget.

In a graphical form, this sets up a three-way balance; a natural pushing, pulling, and reporting structure:

In a triangle, finding a balance point involves either direct experimentation, or a whole lot of math, since the point in which all are in balance is a function of relative weights. It isn’t like a scale, which balances two points. As you can see from the above diagram, achieving balance in this structure by positions can also be challenging.

In reality, the balance resolves itself in the project manager lending weight to the lighter side by supporting (or assuming) one of the two other roles because of missing elements in the project; either the product owner is not available for frequent consultation, or the scrum master need additional support. As such, a good project manager can bolster whichever axis requires attention.

Servant Leader as Multiple-Hats

This brings up the fundamental tension – why can a good project manager shift and slide roles for ultimate project capability?

My simple postulation is that a good project manager is a servant leader. They are not defined by the role given, but are defined by the higher elements of listening, empathy, healing, and awareness, using persuasion, conceptualization, and foresight to bring about growth and community through stewardship. In this way, they are not calling attention to themselves (hierarchical authority), but are instead working behind the scenes for the fundamental progress of the project.

I think this has broader implications for all servant leaders. Because of this ability to focus on the group as the highest goal, they can keep more than one role, more than one idea in their head, navigating the cognitive dissonance as a liminal hotspot without resolving it further.

Lesson from Paul

Paul, as a sent-one (or apostle) of Jesus had one goal – transformation of people into a relationship with Jesus. In this, he took on the role of a servant as well, even defining what this means:

Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!

1 Corinthians 9:19-23 The Message

I love how he expresses the fact that, although he didn’t take on the lifestyle of those he was serving, he engaged them in their own world on their terms – just as Jesus did. Separating himself and requiring others to meet his high standard, he would have not had the impact that this servant-leader life enables.

Summing it up

Multiple hats are a fact of life, and navigating them is best done with a higher goal in mind. Since servant leaders already have the higher goal of group development baked in, they can easily move between the roles.

And, they don’t have to have a big head about it…

Servant Leader Principle #10 – Community

Servant leaders seek to create a community that supports all of its members.

BSA NYLT Syllabus, module Servant Leadership

Because we have isolated ourselves into larger, more anonymous living settings, our sense of independence hampers us from experiencing community – one that we are responsible to, and gain benefit from, and feel a place within.

As individuals are encouraged in growth, and some become servant leaders themselves, the servant leader turns toward building cohesiveness for mutual benefit to all group members. This is like a flywheel, in that the group starts feeding itself, and even turns to spread out in the community.

This mutual serving each other is a powerful hedge against the isolation we drift towards. And, as we bond together for a common cause, we add to the serving posture, and make impacts both external, and internal to ourselves and the group.

Creating community in Institutions

The servant leader senses that much has been lost in recent human history as a result of the shift from local communities to large institutions as the primary shaper of human lives. This awareness causes the servant leader to seek to identify some means for building community among those who work within a given institution. Servant leadership suggests that true community can be created among those who work in businesses and other institutions.

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

It is possible to create community within an organization, even a business; much like servant leaders can build groups in any context, servant leaders can leverage groups into community.

I’ve had the privilege of building one community in my business setting, formed to handle breakdowns in satisfaction among people in our organization. From the forming stages of complaining, they now have turned into an problem-solving group. The satisfaction of seeing individual growth and healing has more than outweighed the effort required. This deserves a post later.

Servant Leaders as Focusers

Greenleaf (1977/2002) said: All that is needed to rebuild community as a viable life form for large numbers of people is for enough servant-leaders to show the way, not by mass movements, but by each servant-leader demonstrating his or her unlimited liability for a quite specific community-related group.

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

Servant leaders who focus on one specific problem, disturbed by their awareness of a broken area, become a powerful lever as they gather those around that also feel the brokenness. For instance, think about these servant leaders, and the brokenness they coalesced others around – making lasting change for community healing:

  • Martin Luther King, Jr. – Leader of the Civil Rights movement
  • Nelson Mandela – Equality in apartheid (segregated) South Africa
  • Mahatma Gandhi – Opposing colonial rule in India
  • Mother Teresa – Served people who were dying of HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis in Calcutta, India

Laying Down Your Life

Jesus spoke of this way of servanthood – specifically to love one another. This love required sacrifice; the intentional setting-aside of yourself for those that you are serving:

“I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.

John 15:11-15 The Message

Call to Servants

So, who are you putting your life on the line for?

Servant Leader Principle #9 – Growth

Servant leaders believe that people have a value beyond being just workers. Servant leaders are deeply committed to the growth of each and every individual.

BSA NYLT Syllabus, module Servant Leadership
Photo of first spring buds; emphasis on growth

Servant leaders are people focused, desiring the best for them as individuals. Never settling for status quo, the servant leader uses listening, empathy, healing, and awareness to understand where the person currently is, conceptualizing a new vision for the served person, and persuading them to own this vision – helping them to make plans and set goals toward those plans (the essence of foresight). It truly represents a capstone of the principles, taking the skills of the servant leader and applying them directly.

The ultimate test, represents the best test from Greenleaf: does the individual grow as a person. As such, it is hardest to measure, since the served person also influences the result, taking all the praises.

Of course, the servant leader must identify motivation in the individual, even if it buried or latent. Without this small ember, which the leader can fan, no amount of principle application can burst flames. Selection of a served individual therefore takes wisdom, as we all contend with limited resources.

Growth in the business context

Servant leaders believe that people have an intrinsic value beyond their tangible contributions as workers. As such, the servant leader is deeply committed to the growth of each and every individual within his or her organization. The servant leader recognizes the tremendous responsibility to do everything in his or her power to nurture the personal and professional growth of employees and colleagues. In practice, this can include (but is not limited to) concrete actions such as making funds available for personal and professional development, taking a personal interest in the ideas and suggestions from everyone, encouraging worker involvement in decision-making, and actively assisting laid-off employees to find other positions

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

In this context, we all know areas where it is bad to mix personal with business. A small list of areas that are commonly cited as cautions:

  • Leads to poor business decisions
  • Business decisions are complicated with“emotional baggage” 
  • The motive of personal gain overrides the achievement of business objectives

However, dividing up our lives into separate contexts is difficult, and sometimes impossible. Different spheres of our lives intersect; bringing a whole person into workplace is a long-term strategy. We need personal attributes of individuals to propel business forward:

  • Solid listening skills
  • Good speaking ability
  • Empathetic handling of problems
  • Significant ethical motivation
  • Maturity and temperate handling

We therefore, as business servant leaders, need to focus on the whole person. Aligning with our business objectives, giving opportunity to grow as described above, and developing all spheres of the individual, we can built the platform needed for these individuals to take their place as whole-person workers who feel significant, challenged, and motivated.


In the quiet hours of the mind, even heading off into the twilight of life, influence is gathered from those individuals we have poured our energy into, especially ones that have succeeded beyond our conceptualized vision. “Good work!” is a satisfying statement from not only the ones we have served, but to our Master who called us into this humble way of seeing our world:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Matthew 11:28-30 The Message

Servant Leader Principle #8 – Stewardship

Servant leaders are careful and responsible as they manage things entrusted to their care.

BSA NYLT Syllabus, module Servant Leadership
Stwerardship casts a long shadow

We are all given a sphere to manage, an area of responsibility, a place for impact. Some of it is chosen, some of it comes by position, and some by necessity. All of these, however are entrusted to us to look after.

Entrusted is a special word – I think of it as transferring an object of value from the owner, who never relinquishes ownership, to one that has to protect and care for this value. I also think this is a time-based concept, in that there is a beginning (the delegation), and an ending (the eventual return).

Two real-life examples of entrust

Children are a family’s form of entrust; they are never completely owned by parents, yet they are protected, cared for, guided, and yes, even managed by parents. While under our care, we hold a high responsibility to develop them into adults of character and competence. Once adulthood is reached, we hand off their development as a return of their independence.

Money is another area entrusted to us, as it seems we never own it, as much as we would like. While under our care, we are to manage it, to use it, and allow some to grow. Eventually, we all must return money to others, even at our life’s demise.

Entrusted to Stewardship

Stewardship is the way we carry out this entrust; it focuses on the fact that we aren’t the owner – merely the one responsible. Servant leaders are conspicuously aware that they don’t exercise control, rather they exercise influence:

Servant leadership, like stewardship, assumes first and foremost a commitment to serving the needs of others. It also emphasizes the use of openness and persuasion, rather than control.

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

An example from Jesus

Jesus taught many truths in parable format (using pictures and then-known examples, like agriculture).

In this way, Jesus told a parable (in Matthew 25:14-30) about a rich person giving money to his servants, and leaving on an extended trip – with the implied expectation to do something with it. Even the assignment was customized to the ability of the servant – some received more than others.

One servant was given $5,000 to work with, and the parable said he went to work and doubled the investment.

Eventually, a reckoning happens:

““After a long absence, the master of those three servants came back and settled up with them. The one given five thousand dollars showed him how he had doubled his investment. His master commended him: ‘Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.’”

Matthew‬ ‭25:19-21‬ ‭The Message

As you can see, being faithful to multiply the investment (as in taking risks, watching over, and developing) led into an even greater role with the master.

However, those who want to keep to themselves, to hoard their energy and effort, also have an example in this parable. One of the servants just buried the smallest sum, and returned it to the penny to the master. To say the master was furious, well…:

“‘Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most. And get rid of this “play-it-safe” who won’t go out on a limb. Throw him out into utter darkness.’

Matthew 25:28-30 The Message

We are called to take this gift we are given to serve, and do something with it. This is the entrust given to us, and it is up to us to steward it.

Summing it up

Servant leader uses stewardship entrusted to us, to persuade others through awareness and empathy to go well beyond, and build on the investment given to us. It is a high calling, one that will require us to take risks (conceptualization mitigated through foresight), knowing that we answer to one higher than us.

Servant Leader Principle #7 – Foresight

Foresight enables servant leaders to understand lessons from the past and the present. These lessons help them understand the consequences of decisions in the future.

BSA NYLT Syllabus, module Servant Leadership
Barn, by Chris Shoff

Like a good farmer, a servant leader has a good sense of impact. Actions or decisions that are seemingly inconsequential may have significant value over time, and identification of these inflection points are crucial for any leadership. As this is not always apparent at the immediate time, it takes awareness combined with wisdom to see past and future.

This becomes almost esoteric in application, and indeed, sometimes it’s a mystery to know, even personally, whether a decision is right:

Closely related to conceptualization, the ability to foresee the likely outcome of a situation is hard to define, but easier to identify. One knows foresight when one experiences it. Foresight is a characteristic that enables the servant leader to understand the lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and the likely consequence of a decision for the future. It is also deeply rooted within the intuitive mind.

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

Getting the Basics Right

Without a moral standard, intuition can be led astray. It forms the bedrock of the decision, the guardrails around the correct road, the limits necessary.

As I’ve previously posted, my moral grounding starts with my relationship with Jesus, I look to Him for examples during His life on earth:

A religion scholar tried to trip Jesus up by prioritizing the commandments God gave to the Jewish nation. In response, He gives the bedrock of these commandments:

Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.”

Matthew 22:37-40, The Message

The second parallel commandment, loving others as yourself, is inherent in servant leadership. As a good first pass of a decision, caring for others is a great start.

Embracing Intuion

Often after this first pass of caring for others as a high goal, there are many paths to take, and not all of them are clear. Here is my list of habits I use to build on my foundation:

  • Take a deep breath – Many times a decision needs a bit of consideration, and using your breathing to clear the decks and slow the emotional roll.
  • Allow yourself some time – While many decisions need immediate attention, some may need more consideration; don’t be afraid to ask for more time.
  • Test the decision – Throwing the alternatives at your target to see if it will stand up to the test – even ones that initially seem better. Take a look at the goals and outcomes of each branch
  • Being able to describe the decision in pictures or analogies – I find that if I can describe the decision in visual or other ways, it clarifies the decision and allows me to describe it to others.
  • Feeling settled in the decision – it’s hard to describe, but when I find a decision is right, there’s a deep-seated satisfaction with the future outcome that is peaceful, even if not easy.

Putting it together

Foresight is a somewhat mysterious concept. Having a bedrock set of morals, along with using wisdom and intuition, you are able to synthesize good decisions that will stand the tests that will come as you lead.

Servant Leader Principle #6 – Conceptualization

Servant leaders dream great dreams. They must think beyond day-to-day realities

BSA NYLT Syllabus, module Servant Leadership
Looking out in the distance, dreaming big dreams

Most people get caught up into the present, the urgent, the fire waiting as you engage the group. Yet, the value of many leaders is to build on a larger base, to bring the best to reality.

Servant leaders seek to nurture their abilities to dream great dreams. The ability to look at a problem or an organization from a conceptualizing perspective means that one must think beyond day-to-day realities. For many leaders, this is a characteristic that requires discipline and practice. The traditional leader is consumed by the need to achieve short-term operational goals. The leader who wishes to also be a servant leader must stretch his or her thinking to encompass broader-based conceptual thinking. Servant leaders are called to seek a delicate balance between conceptual thinking and a day-to-day operational approach.

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

Conceptualization takes the external awareness principle and the listening principle, synthesizes the best from each, and places this vision in front of the group using persuasion.

I have found it best to take the time to reflect, to pause, or as Larry states, to engage discipline and practice to see past the immediate problems toward a good future solution. However, I have also presented a concept far beyond what the group is ready to engage, and found that patience is necessary to realize the goal – it becomes an indicator to me to step more into the operational aspects so I don’t get too “pie in the sky”. Balancing this tension is an important discipline of the servant leader.

Servant Leader Principle #5 – Persuasion

Servant leaders rely on persuasion rather than authority in making decisions. Servant leaders seek to convince others rather than forcing them.

BSA NYLT Syllabus, module Servant Leadership

Persuasion, defined as a drawing toward, or pushing toward a goal, is the first element in our principles that highlights the leader functions of the servant leader. All others (listening, empathy, healing, awareness) fall more over to the servant side of the balance.

Traditional leadership methods generally work from a top-down power flow, allowing this type of leader to issue commands. This seems like an effective way to coordinate results, and it is a leadership style widely used.

Servant leaders, however, rarely reach for this style, choosing the harder work of bringing others along in a convincing way. Like a flywheel, it starts slowly, and builds momentum – momentum that continues long after force is applied.

The Primary Leading

Spears points out that this persuasion default is the primary difference between servant leaders and other authority models:

Another characteristic of servant leaders is reliance on persuasion, rather than on one’s positional authority, in making decisions within an organization. The servant leader seeks to convince others, rather than coerce compliance. This particular element offers one of the clearest distinctions between the traditional authoritarian model and that of servant leadership. The servant leader is effective at building consensus within groups.

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

Getting everyone aligned is a patient, sometimes grueling task. Very rarely does a group automatically line up , but I have been part of groups that do line up quickly, pointing at a servant leader who has been consistently and masterfully pursing this alignment. These servant leaders I see as giving a rudder pressure to the group; like an oil tanker turning, it takes turning the wheel and waiting to achieve results.

Leading from the Back

Like all disciplines in servant leadership, this is part of the humble shaping of the group. It never calls attention to the servant leader, and allows the group to own their destiny. There lies its power – when success is proven, all praise goes to the group.

At the end of the day, the servant leader has the grounding to know his influence is helping, healing, and building, allowing others to shine. It is a substantial leader that can support this without calling attention back – but worthy of pursuit!

Servant Leader Principle #4 – Awareness

Servant leaders are tuned into the needs of others. They are also aware of their own need for growth.

BSA NYLT Syllabus, module Servant Leadership
Awareness is a Sisyphean task…

Awareness is truly a difficult concept to understand in the servant leader role. It takes on two different facets:

  • The internal view of the servant leader (internal awareness)
  • Awareness of the brokenness, or the task that needs to be done (external awareness)

Let’s tackle each separately, then combine them into a set of behaviors and attitudes later.

Internal Awareness

General awareness, and especially self-awareness, strengthens the servant-leader. Awareness helps one in understanding issues involving ethics, power, and values. It lends itself to being able to view most situations from a more integrated, holistic position.

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

Awareness for the servant leader starts with an internal look, most often starting with the basic questions of life:

  • Who am I?
  • Why am I here?
  • Where am I going?
  • How will I get there?
  • What does success look like?
  • What are my morals, and where do I get them?

This is not to say that the servant leader has all the answers – rather that there is a continuing process of asking and answering them, of a movement between resolution and disturbance.

By having these basic questions in a semi-solid state, the servant leader can look out for more areas, detecting the gaps below the issues presented, to look beyond the face value. By exercising their questioning mindset frequently internally, it also sets up the servant leader to bring this mindset externally.

External Awareness

As Greenleaf (1977/2002) observed: “Awareness is not a giver of solace—it is just the opposite. It is a disturber and an awakener. Able leaders are usually sharply awake and reasonably disturbed. They are not seekers after solace. They have their own inner serenity”

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

Coming from the basis of settled/unsettled questions, the servant leader can expand past themselves into seeing the brokenness and gaps in the others; the people being served. This brings a desire to heal, and then to act – driving the discontent with current reality.

Many of the servant leaders I know have a keen observational way about them, like they have another, higher sense of what is happening. This comes from being able to listen with empathy, as they set aside themselves.

Sometimes this awareness points at the blindness of others, including blindness to their own impacts, deception, or other self-serving actions. This puts the servant leader in the mode of calling out uncomfortable truths . Servant leaders are not afraid of conflict, rather they use it to provoke movement toward healing.

Jesus using Awareness

In Matthew 16:13-28, Jesus leads the disciples, especially Peter, in a discussion of who Jesus really is. Upon Peter’s confession that Jesus is “the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God”, Peter is commended, even told that he is a Rock. I imagine Peter feeling quite fulfilled by this, even a bit puffed up.

Next, though, Jesus describes how it is necessary to sacrifice Himself, die, and be raised on the third day. Peter, takes Jesus by the hand, protests, even saying, “Impossible, Master! That can never be!”

The next verse is quite telling, showing the way a servant leader can forcefully provoke awareness:

But Jesus didn’t swerve. “Peter, get out of my way. Satan, get lost. You have no idea how God works.”

Matthew 16:23 The Message

I imagine Peter was swimming -first he is called a Rock, then he’s called Satan. Jesus, aware of Peter’s expectations, drives a wedge and a stake right through them. Peter’s desires were running contrary to the servant – the self-sacrificial posture required, even to suffering.

Putting Awareness together

Identifying the issues and bringing them into sharp relief is the point of awareness, even the internal awareness of the servant leader. It starts with a discontent, even a disturbance identified. Provoking themselves and others toward empathy and healing is rarely an easy task, but tools like keen observation and brave (even difficult) communication and needed and useful.

Servant Leader Principle #3 – Healing

One of the great strengths of servant leadership is the potential for healing one’s self and others. Servant leaders help themselves and others feel better and be better

BSA NYLT Syllabus, module Servant Leadership
Healing Dolls
“Healing Dolls” by JessCaracciolo is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

Healing is a natural result in the application of the two proceeding principles – #1 – Listening and #2 – Empathy. Between these skills, others start to feel valued as people, and move past their feelings of stuckness and the near constant looking for others to blame. They are freed up to envision something outside themselves, and head toward a future that is more appealing than their current state.

Receiving the Healing

The healing of relationships is a powerful force for transformation and integration. One of the great strengths of servant leadership is the potential for healing one’s self and one’s relationship to others. Many people have broken spirits and have suffered from a variety of emotional hurts. Although this is a part of being human, servant leaders recognize that they have an opportunity to help make whole those with whom they come in contact.

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

This relational “making right” is a near-constant outlook for the servant leader; opportunities will present themselves in ways sometimes least expected. Including yourself, as the servant leader, as the human condition is bent toward brokenness and pain. But, this hidden habit of moving past yourself, of taking on the burdens of others, allows you to experience the freedom from your own burden.

I have been part of teams in the past that suffered underneath broken leadership. It is truly difficult to help others realize that you are not “more of the same”, that you believe in them as people that matter, that you are willing to listen and act. Deep wounds require more time, but teams are thirsty for this kind of leadership. This work of healing takes small, patient steps to build the trust required for the next principles.

An Example from Jesus

In Luke 9, Jesus introduces the fact that he will be tried, convicted, killed, and raised on the third day. The first time He mentioned it in verse 22, He moved into a discussion of how they move into this servant life, even one of suffering.

But, they did not get the message.

The second time Jesus brings this up, the disciples not only missed it, but it was like they were hearing a foreign language. Especially when they started arguing about who would be best known. See how Jesus heals the infighting:

They started arguing over which of them would be most famous. When Jesus realized how much this mattered to them, he brought a child to his side. “Whoever accepts this child as if the child were me, accepts me,” he said. “And whoever accepts me, accepts the One who sent me. You become great by accepting, not asserting. Your spirit, not your size, makes the difference.”

Luke 9:46-48 The Message

There is nothing like being reminded that a child, with child-like faith, can be greater than you to give you pause in your prideful arrogance. Jesus reveals that the smaller, the more-open, the humble are closer to Him and God – what you do outside of this acceptance is valueless.

Summing it up

Healing involves the servant leader in patient, humble, listening steps to allow the thirsty team to build trust, to see themselves as valuable, and begin to realize their potential. The servant leader is also the recipient of this healing, as the outward focus allows healing internally too.

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.