The Servant Leader as Empathetic

In our previous two posts, we discussed Robert K. Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership theoretical framework for leadership development. Greenleaf introduced the framework in 1970, advocating a leader’s primary motivation and role is fully realized through service to others.

In the last post, we reviewed the characteristic of listening as central to servant leadership. In this post, we discuss the characteristic of empathy.

Empathy is defined as: “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Empathy can respond to positive and/or negative emotions. It communicates (often without words) one of the most powerful phrases in the English language“I know.” So, what might that look like behaviorally for the Servant Leader?

  • A Servant Leader realizes that each person is unique.
    There is a temptation to sometimes think, “Why can’t this employee be like that one?” It is true that there are times when employees miss the mark related to various metrics used to define success. However, it is also true that sometimes employers see what they want to see, and as a result, overlook the unique contributions all employees bring to the team. An empathetic leader does not allow himself/herself to become infatuated with theoretical grandiosity while ignoring trench reality. Such a lack of balance proves disastrous long term. If you do not have the bandwidth for one-on-one empathy with everyone in your organization, then you must model empathy with your department heads and upper-level managers and equip them to do the same with their direct reports.
  • A Servant Leader realizes that each person has strengths and weaknesses.
    Forgetting that makes it so easy to create a culture that rewards arbitrary measures of success while simultaneously creating expectations chaos. An empathetic leader builds upon employees’ strengths, but at the same time, refuses to witness weakness and sit idly by. He or she cares enough about an employee who is struggling to say, “I notice production is down this quarter. Let’s talk about it and see if we can figure out where our bottlenecks are.” Do you see how such an empathetic approach can open the door for self-awareness, self-actualization, and self-fulfillment?
  • A Servant Leader has genuine concern for others.
    Genuine concern is a choice. Often, competing interests like profit, budget constraints, stakeholder complaints, workaholic syndrome, etc., make choosing genuine concern on a personal level a challenge. As organizations grow, it can be even more challenging to express genuine concern. With that said, pausing for sixty seconds on occasion, looking someone in the eye, and asking, “How are you?” then coupling empathy with listening stands a much greater change of enhancing employee engagement and enthusiasm than a non-empathetic, non-listening culture provides.

In our next post, we’ll discuss the servant leader as a healing influence.

Until then – Happy Training!

Greg Anderson
Written by:
Greg Anderson
Chief Learning Officer, Strategic Government Resources
Follow Greg on Twitter!@SGRGreg

2 responses

  1. A Servant Leader realizes that each person is unique.
    This statement is so simple and yet so PROFOUND. Many times as leaders we want folks to fit into our little cookie cutter shapes and personality types. The reality is that we don’t usually get that! (smile) Sometimes we have to get over ourselves in order to lead and manage effectively. Another great post!

    1. Thanks, Enna! Your additional points are ALWAYS appreciated 🙂

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