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.

Servant Leadership Principle #1 – Listening

Servant leaders seek out the will of the group. They listen receptively to what is being said (and not said)

“Portrait of listening” by squash is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Servant leaders seek out the will of the group. They listen receptively to what is being said (and not said).

BSA NYLT Syllabus, module Servant Leadership

It is hard to be a servant toward someone to whom you aren’t listening. As this is mostly self-evident, it still bears repeating. Even today, I see far more staring at screens than eye contact as I move through this world.

Listening with intention is a very active task however – even while reflecting on our perception:

Listening allows us to look within ourselves and become aware of the barriers that inhibit our ability to listen effectively. It helps us discern information that leads to understanding, rather than judgment, which in turn leads to derision. We all have personal biases and prejudices even if we’d like to believe otherwise. Listening helps us serve by exposing prejudices that filter select words, warp messages, and prevent us from considering another point of view.

Jessica Zisa, posted in Listen to Serve

The wise listener is evaluating many things at once:

  • The 90% of communication not given verbally (feelings, emotions, tells, and so on)
  • The things left unsaid (areas either forgotten or intentionally passed)
  • Their own emotional reaction to the sender
  • Their own emotional reaction to the message
  • The reaction of others, if applicable
  • Oh, and the facts of the communication

Sometimes it’s wise to summarize what you’ve learned from the listening, in order to acknowledge and give feedback. However, make sure you are adding to the conversation, not just sending back the same message.

Sometimes it’s wise to just keep quiet, and process all the communication given, in order to sort through the jumble to gain insight and understanding. However, make sure that you don’t abandon the communicator, and make them feel alone (many times this can be done non-verbally).

Responses in Anger

Be especially wary when, while listening, your emotions lead to anger:

Post this at all the intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. God’s righteousness doesn’t grow from human anger. So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage. In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life.

James 1:19-21 (The Message)

Please sense the peace that dispatching the anger gives in this verse, because the anger mainly is a selfish response (though not exclusively). The picture of a lush, peaceful garden is very compelling; the humility required to drop the anger, however, is expensive.


Listening, above all, requires patient outreach to the person communicating. To walk in another’s shoes, to make them feel understood, to grasp the entirety of the communication – this is the fundamental work of the servant.

My basis for Leadership – Jesus

“Jesus washes his disciples feet, Soham” by TheRevSteve is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

As a Christ-follower, my first and primary motivation for this posture of being a servant is Jesus himself.

You see, Jesus came not to rule, nor to make bad people good, but to save us – save us from our rebellious attitude toward God. He does this by showing us the way of His kingdom, and paying the price for our rebelliousness by giving up His own life – the ultimate act of service.

God authorized this by raising Jesus from the dead, something we celebrate every Easter.

This is great news!

Reversals (The Kingdom Way)

Jesus often spoke of the different way of His kingdom. He embodied the tension between overthrowing and working for the current world systems with one goal – God’s purpose in this world. This video does a great job of expressing this third way:

The Way of the Exile

This then, brings us back to leading by serving (a reversal). He shows that the power of leading comes from this attitude of laying down your rights/desires/motivations as a leader, and start by seeing others more important than yourself:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Matthew 20:24-28 (NIV)

So then, as one who isn’t part of the current system (an exile), and yet called to be part of the system, my desire for greatness is subverted, converted into servanthood.

However, Jesus doesn’t just leave us in this state. In fact, Jesus makes this astounding turn in the priestly prayer chapter of John:

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 15:14-16 (The Message)

Jesus is the master of the next-level; by following his invitation to be a servant He mysteriously transforms us into His friend. He allows us to see what God is doing, and invites us into the decision!

Because of all this, I am a Christ-follower, and I strive to be a servant.

Basics of Servant Leadership

“gogogo” by SHANIDAN.COM is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Robert Greenleaf is the acknowledged father of the discipline of Servant Leadership (although by no means the originator, as we will discuss in future posts). His model, though, is a good place to start our discussion:

Servant leadership is a philosophy and set of practices that enriches the lives of individuals, builds better organizations and ultimately creates a more just and caring world.

Robert Greenleaf

He describes this Servant Leader moving into 3 distinct phases:

  • The Natural Desire“It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first”
  • The Conscious Choice – “Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead…”
  • The Best Test – “The best test, and difficult to administer, is: do those served grow as persons…”

I can attest to this natural flow in my life, as someone who is serving eventually comes to a place where giving to a group puts you into a natural leadership position. It doesn’t come from desiring or pulling this leadership role -grasping for it will result in other leadership styles.

Greenleaf’s determination of success, then, is not directly tied to the leader, but to the group being served. As this is difficult to measure, and reflected in the natural human choices of the group being served, it is doubtful that any performance indicator can be made for this kind of leader.

This philosophy has far-reaching consequences, and is the burning desire of this blog.