Guest Viewpoint: Becoming an Empathetic Leader

Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone; empathy seeks to understand them. Sympathy feels bad when you are in a deep, dark hole — but empathy crawls down in the hole with you and may eventually help you out.

My mother died when she was 54, so whenever I hear of someone losing their mother at a relatively young age, I feel sorry for them. That is sympathy.

Todd Gray

On the other hand, when I meet someone who has experienced divorce, I can only seek to understand what they must be going through since I have not experienced divorce. The effort to understand their pain and possibly help them get through it is empathy.

Well-known presidential biographer and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said this about the importance of empathy: “It is the most important quality in any kind of setting — to listen to different points of view and really hear what people are saying. Some people are born with it, such as Lincoln. Others can develop it.”

How can leaders learn to be more empathetic toward those they are called to lead? Here are five suggestions:

1. Take a genuine interest in other people. Empathy fuels connections. Empathetic leaders are not using people as a means to an end. They are genuinely curious about others. They want to know about their life experiences and what motivates them to do well. To grow in empathy, seek to grow in your interest in others.

2. Ask questions to understand the perspective of another person. Empathetic leaders do not ask questions in order to win an argument or get people to side with them. They ask questions that help them understand why others think the way they do.

3. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Some have suggested that leaders should ask what it is like to sit on the other side of the table from yourself. Empathetic leaders know that their decisions and actions will impact others — perhaps in ways they may not appreciate. Try putting yourself in the place of those you supervise and determine how your leadership may be impacting them.

4. Be understanding when mistakes are made. Mistakes are part of progress. The well-known household product WD-40 is the result of a 40th attempt to develop a water-displacement formula to prevent rust. The previous 39 attempts failed. While empathetic leaders may want to avoid mistakes, they also know that mistakes are often part of progress.

5. Disagree with others without debating them. Every disagreement does not have to become a battle, and, in many cases, we can agree to disagree. It may be that in time the other person will come over to your way of thinking or you will move in their direction.

All Christian leaders are growing leaders, and our growth in empathy will make us a greater blessing to those we are called to lead.

— Todd Gray is executive director-treasurer of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.