How Empathetic Should a Leader Be?

Empathy is described by Robert Greenleaf as one of the twelve characteristics of Servant Leadership. Obviously, when leading from the heart, as is the intent of a serving leader, one has to exercise extreme patience, compassion and understanding in their day-to-day interaction with others.

Be that as it may, just how empathetic should one be in their daily efforts of making a difference in the lives of those whom they are leading? How much empathy is necessary of a servant leader? Until I was asked this question by an interviewing school principal, I admit I had not given much thought to this important Servant Leadership characteristic.

Empathy – not sympathy for the situation of others – is defined as the intellectual identification with, or vicarious experiencing of, the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. In other words, the feelings or attitudes felt within one’s self when considering the feelings, thoughts, attitudes, or expressions of heart-felt concern over an issue that is causing intrinsic anxiety, apprehension or worry in another person.

Leadership is a responsibility that requires a tremendous amount of time and effort in dealing with people as they carry-out the day-to-day tasks of their individual jobs. Leadership today requires more than just expecting the necessary performances of employees to meet company missions and goals.

Larry Spears, in his Focus on Leadership: Servant Leadership for the 21st Century, points out that there is a new leadership paradigm, a new moral principle that requires a new leadership model for successfully leading people to higher levels of success in the organization.

Old Paradigm: Control, Regulations; Manager/Leader Directed; Employee treated like children; Warlike Values.

New Paradigm: Openness, People Oriented; Cooperation, relationships; employee treated like adults; Integrity, trust, mutual respect.

Spears also writes that there is a new “Moral Principle” that says, “The only authority deserving one’s allegiance is given freely and knowingly granted by the led to the leader.”

This allegiance is strengthened when employees see in leadership a clearly evident “servant stature” of the leader. In other words, a caring and empathetic attitude emanating  from leadership that creates within those led a level of trust and loyalty not normally obtained under the old paradigm of leadership.

This type leadership as a model that is based on teamwork and community building techniques. It seeks to involve others in the decision making process, and actually empowers employees to make decision in their daily job tasks that promote organizational success for the good of the organization.

Servant Leadership is Empathic Leadership that is based on an ethical and caring behavior toward employees that enhances their personal growth, which creates a trusting belief that the leader is intrinsically concerned about the welfare of others.

Just how far does a servant leader go to create this level of trust, this showing of how much you really care about the personal growth of the employees? Is it more important than the organizational vision of expansion and higher levels of profits? Evidence is beginning to emerge that indicates empathic leaders contribute more to the bottom line than the old paradigm of leadership. People will tell you, “I don’t care how much you know, show me how much you care.”

servant-leadership-mountain 1

The premier leader of all time tell us that when someone asks you go with them a mile, you should go with them two miles. Empathic leaders “go the extra mile” in their leadership to instill a high level of trust from those under their charge. Leaders can instill this level of empathy in a number of ways.

Key empathic leadership principles include the following empathy-based practices. 

  • Lead from a value-based, principle-centered position of moral authority. Do the right thing with employees, empower them to make sound personal and organizational decisions. Lead from a set of consistent standards of performance, yet allowing for some flexible boundaries for personal growth. Delegate tasks, share power, while creating a culture of accountability. Maintain your personal integrity.
  •  Operate from a high level of Emotional Intelligence (EI). Be aware of your own level of empathy, transparency and service orientation. Develop empathic leaders who will in turn develop other empathic leaders. Be an agent of change for personal growth, not only in yourself, but also in the well-being of others.
  • Become an empathic listener, who seeks to identify the internal “will” of other’s conversations. Be receptive to what “is” being said, as well as what “is not” being said, seeking to understand what the person’s spirit and mind is saying. Observe what the non-verbal signals are sending as well as with the words that are spoken.
  • Maxwell says, “Treat everyone like a 10.” Empathic leaders treat everyone from the same value-based standard, exhibiting a deep-seated belief that everyone has intrinsic and extrinsic value. Empathetic leadership exhibits a strong commitment to the personal growth of everyone – provide professional development; listen to suggestions, reflect on their value and incorporate where appropriate.
  • Make employees your “Number 1” priority – put people first in your leadership. Lead from your heart, with compassion as you help others meet their highest priority development needs. Empathic leaders desire to “serve first”, demonstrating a personal calling in the interest of others.
  • Tough Love. Being empathic does not negate the requirement for confronting behaviors that run counter to organizational norms. Leaders must be compassionate in their leadership and caring when correcting behavioral concerns, exercising all the ideas above. Empathy doesn’t mean leaders will accept performance that is below standards, employee strife that interferes with teamwork, or decision-making that reduces productivity. Empathic leaders are also proactive leaders, correcting problems to maintain organizational efficiency.

How empathetic should you be in your leadership? How far will you go to lead others? Each leader must answer that question for themselves. For me it is going the extra miles when required, to enhance their lives. Instead of giving up on someone, attempt to improve them. You will see the difference you made and, more importantly, you will feel the intrinsic reward from your empathic leadership efforts.

Thank you for your comments.



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