The empathetic leader

The following notes are a summary of the Servant-Leader roundtable held on November 20, 2014.  These notes reflect a conversation among 14 Servant-Leaders from the Milwaukee area.  The group gathers once a month at the Mad Rooster CaféCafe.



A framing question on empathy:
Where, in the mix of accepting people as they are, coaching, and helping them reach their full potential, does empathy fit in?


Empathy is defined as:  the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also :  the capacity for this.  (Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Notes from around the table:

The exercise of empathy most often takes place through interactions among two people.  Thoughts shared around the table included:

  • Empathy is recognition of personhood.  Sometimes the best thing we can do is to just be with someone.
  • Showing empathy builds trust.  You can’t show sincere empathy without having trust.
  • There’s a strong tie between empathy and listening.  Listening creates a gateway to understanding.
  • When doing well with empathy we are not talking much.
  • There is real power in listening.  There are many examples from different cultures of the power of providing opportunities for people to speak without interruption.
  • It’s difficult to associate with someone who is being emotionally difficult.  Sometimes the best way to deal with these situations is to simply be nonjudgmental and seek to understand the speaker.

Building the empathetic environment:

  • In addition to building empathy through the relationships we cultivate within our organization, we have the opportunity to support and promote empathy through our organizational culture.
  • Building trusting relationships is key.  Simply asking, “How are you?” can help a person understand you are reaching out to them.
  • Don’t rush.  Recognize and take the time to respect people.  Sometimes the best way to diffuse a dysfunctional relationship or to bring out the best in people is to take the time to identify something you respect about them.  This can be especially powerful in a group setting.
  • A morning check in can allow for recognition and acknowledgement of people’s personal situation.  Allowing people to introduce themselves is one way to listen and let people express their voice.
  • At the same time, there is a balance between empathy and performance standards.  Constructive criticism is empathetic and constructive, whereas destructive criticism is just that, destructive.  We need to be able to help people move on in a sincere way.
  • In every organization you will see somebody who is highly respected because they take little credit and they are helping people.  They are the informal leaders.


Insights for leaders:

  • In order to be present to those we lead we need to have awareness of how much we reveal about ourselves.  Showing your heart and being a little vulnerable is powerful.
  • We can’t understand other people’s perceptions about things.  We know, however, empathy is related to understanding the emotional component associated with every experience.
  • Be yourself and be authentic…Don’t check to see who is winning in a relationship.
  • Empathy is or is not part of a corporate culture.  We need to be consistent in our message to the organization.

December activities:

Monday, December 15, 2014:  WI Servant-Leader Cities Tour

Thursday, December 18, 2014:  Servant-Leader roundtable at the Mad Rooster Café

  • We will be gathering for the monthly Servant-Leader roundtable at 8:00 AM. 
  • Our topic for the day is “Recognizing the passions in others.” 
  • The roundtable is free, breakfast is on your own.  You can register and add this event to your calendar by going to:

Author: Dan Lococo

I am a whole person called to engage with others as they realize their own wholeness. Service is the act of engaging with others on their journey to realizing their own wholeness. (December, 2013)

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