Putting Servant Leadership into Practice: Empathy

EmpathyIs empathy the key to business effectiveness? According to several researchers, the answer is a certain yes. A 2013 study published in the International Journal of Economics Business and Management Studies revealed a direct, scientific correlation between the level of empathy demonstrated by business leaders and the level of leadership effectiveness.

Harvard Business Review (HBR) published an article that named empathy as the first of four primary competencies identified in successful leaders. Need more proof? In her 2012 book “The Zen Leader,” author Ginny Whitelaw defined empathy as the most powerful leadership tool, and a Forbes.com contributor named empathy a foundational element for better business.

Despite its recent attention as a vital element of a healthy workplace, empathy has been a long-standing characteristic of servant-leaders. Empathy is the ability to be “keenly aware of another’s thoughts, feelings and needs associated with an experience and explicitly expressing to them a deep and caring understanding of their experience.” (Sipe and Frick, “Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership”).

A 2013 study mentioned in HBR found that slightly more than 20 percent of surveyed employees named empathy as a leadership strength. It’s no surprise that Fortune Magazine’s 2014 list of the “100 Best Companies to Work For” is comprised of nearly 20 percent servant-led companies—a telling reflection of the connection between prioritizing characteristics of Servant Leadership and business effectiveness.

Empathy sits at the core of what it means to be a servant-leader. Prioritizing the needs and growth of others and genuinely caring about their thoughts and feelings is the very essence of what makes servant-leaders different from those driven by control and hierarchy. How can we begin to grow as servant-leaders if we are not empathetic to the experiences, feelings and needs of others?

The good news is that empathy can be learned. In fact, some schools are teaching empathy as part of business communication courses. Developing the following top-six habits of highly empathetic people can guide your growth as a servant-leader:

  1. Cultivate curiosity about others.
  2. Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities.
  3. Become the other person; appreciate their perspective.
  4. Listen hard—and open up. (Read more about listening here and here).
  5. Inspire mass action and social change.
  6. Develop an ambitious imagination.

You can also learn more about the ability from Dr. Helen Riess, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. In this fascinating TED Talk, she explores the power of empathy through a neuroscience lens. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=baHrcC8B4WM

Remember—it’s never too late to begin incorporating empathy into your leadership behavior!

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