Servant Leadership: 4 Ways to Strengthen the Empathy Muscle


Empathy is one quality that separates great servant leaders from poor ones. The ability to “feel with” rather than “feel for” is an ability that is necessary to make the human-to-human connections needed for servant leadership. Empathy is so important because the “feeling with” often precedes love. It’s hard to love someone in his or her struggle if we can’t empathize with him or her.

Unfortunately, empathy has been politicized and associated with being weak. This politicizing and association with weakness has no place in anybody’s attempt to serve someone else. The lack of empathy in evident when Jeffrey Follmer, leader of the Cleveland Police union, argued that Tamir Rice deserved to be killed. Bull Connor is forever etched in history as a public servant who showed no empathy. His lack of empathy is now a monument of water hoses and dogs. The servant leaders who proclaim that #BlackLivesMatter would not have to make that proclamation if more empathy for the collective plight of Black people in America was evident and if the police arrested George Zimmerman immediately after he killed Trayvon Martin and the jury convicted him when he finally went to court.

So, what’s up with those who aren’t empathetic? Psychologists argue that those who lack empathy are narcissist. Those with an empathy deficiency are so self-centered that it is hard for them to “feel for” others. Individualism also makes empathy difficult. When servant leaders put self above those being served (the collective) those leaders aren’t as empathetic to the needs of those they serve. Thank goodness, narcissism can be treated and empathy can be learned. Below are five ways servant leaders can strengthen their empathy muscle.

  1. Listen Servant leaders have to take time out to listen to those being served. Listen without interjecting opinions. Listen without defenses. Listen without preconceived notions. Just listen! What better way to understand both specific and collective needs of people than by listening! Open ears and an open heart will strengthen the empathy muscle.
  2. Ask Questions Marc Pachter presented an excellent TedTalk entitled “The Art of the Interview” which covers empathetic questions. Pachter uses empathic questions to get people to break down barriers and to be the agent “of another person’s self revelation.” Purposeful question asking can strengthen the empathy muscle.
  3. Challenge Prejudices  Sometimes, just because we believe something is true about someone else, doesn’t mean we are right. We have to challenges our own bias and assumptions. When you hear the words thug, welfare queen, disability, or terrorist, what comes to mind? Whatever you thought is a mental model that has been created. This model is often based on mistruths controlled by some narrative we hear or see. We have to begin to challenge those prejudices in order to build our empathy muscle. It’s hard to empathize with those we serve if our prejudices get in the way.
  4. Walk in the shoes of those being served If you serve the homeless, spend time with the homeless. If you lead a congregation, spend time with the congregants. If you lead a city, spend time with the constituents. Spending time with those being served while listening, asking questions and challenging personal prejudices is essential. Servant leaders have to be strong enough to “walk” in order to build the empathy muscle.

Let empathy be the tool that leads to more love and understanding for those you serve!

Servant Leadership: 4 Ways to Strengthen the Empathy Muscle
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