Servant Leaders & Empathy

In my experience as a business leader (and a human being!) empathy is one of the most powerful forces for good at work in human relationships but one of the most overlooked.
Deep down inside, great leaders have empathy and an unqualified acceptance of the persons who go with their leadership. Men grow taller when those who lead them empathize and when they are accepted for what they are, even if their performance may be judged critically in terms of what they are capable of doing. Leaders who empathize and fully accept those who go with them on this basis are more likely to be trusted.

Greenleaf links empathy to acceptance seeing the opposite of both as rejection, a refusal to hear or receive. Interestingly he grounds his understanding of empathy and acceptance in the context of family which he sees as a place of ultimate unconditionality (my words not his). This makes me think  that business, when it’s run well, has at its core, family values.

At this point let me try and define empathy and in the process contrast it with a similar sounding word with which it can be confused, sympathy.

In my mind the essence of empathy is my ability to “put myself in your shoes”. This involves:

• perspective – seeing things from your point of view

• emotions – feeling what you’re feeling

• motives – understanding why you are feeling the way you do, and why you are thinking, saying, doing the things you are

• needs – appreciating what you need

In contrast sympathy is me feeling sorry for you usually because I like you and feel that what is happening to you is undeserved. Generally speaking we sympathise with those we like or agree with, in other words we’re on the same side. Empathy is different because it isn’t based on whether I like you or agree with you.

In my experience as a business leader (and a human being!) empathy is one of the most powerful forces for good at work in human relationships but one of the most overlooked.

The ability to empathise is undoubtedly enhanced through personal experience. I am able to empathise because I have actually experienced what you are experiencing. Oprah Winfrey sums this up well when she says:

The struggle of my life created empathy – I could relate to pain, being abandoned, having people not love me.
Oprah Winfrey

I do think it is possible to empathize without having actually had the same experience as the other person but this requires a high degree of self-awareness and emotional intelligence. 

If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.
Daniel Goleman

Interestingly, George McGovern said, “Empathy is born out of the old biblical injunction ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’.” Where there is love there is empathy.

So why is empathy so important in the context of leadership? Here are four reasons that I see.

People versus resources

Empathy is exclusively the gift of human beings. Where there is empathy there is humanity. Leaders who express empathy communicate to those they lead that they are people not resources. Empathy communicates value and honour. People who are valued and honoured are happier, more motivated and more productive.

Blame versus understanding

Empathy is an inhibitor of blame. In any organisation individuals and teams are prone to blame the other person or the other team and in the process accuse others of failing to understand them! Blame is toxic to growth and learning. Empathy is toxic to blame and helps individuals and teams to understand what the real issues are and what they need to do collectively to drive continual improvement for the good of all.

Team versus individual

A successful organisation is optimised at an organisational level not at a team or individual level. Empathy makes this possible because rather than simply focusing on being a great individual or a great team, possibly at the expense of the others, individuals and teams take time to understand the issues and needs of others. To use a sporting analogy it is not the football team with the eleven best individual players or the team with the best defence or best attack, it is the team with the best team which wins the league.

“Lower-archy” versus hierarchy

Empathy is a great leveller. One of the most common criticisms of senior leaders by those who are being led is “they have no idea what it’s like in the real world”. In large corporations lack of empathy by senior managers creates huge stress for middle managers who have to take “ivory tower” edicts and apply them in the everyday. This lack of empathy reinforces hierarchy. Senior leaders who empathise foster a sense of “we are all in this together,” a sense of comradery and team spirit which make good organisations great.

I believe that businesses that want to reach their full potential should encourage empathy. As leaders are the custodians of culture then it starts with empathic leadership. But empathy is not the monopoly of leaders. If you are in any sense being led by someone then try empathising with them. Leaders have a tough job and one of the best ways to help them is to understand what you could do to make their job easier! You will sow what you reap.

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