Stop Saying, “Walk a Mile in Their Shoes”!

Instead of saying, "walk a mile in their shoes", say, "walk a mile in their muddy boots." Here's why this matters.
Don't say, "walk a mile in their shows". Instead, say, "Walk a mile in their muddy boots." In this Midjourney image, a pair of very dirty sandals rests on a beach. In the distance a storm is rolling in.

“To really understand someone, you need to walk a mile in their shoes.”

That sounds nice, but it’s wrong. To really understand someone, we need to walk a mile in their muddy boots. Let me explain….

When you ask someone how they’re doing, what is a typical response? Do they tell you their struggles and pains? Or do you get pretty pictures, rosy responses, and even simplistic, “fine” or “good” answers? 

When we walk a mile in someone’s shoes, we may think we know them, based on what they tell us. So, walking a mile in their shoes becomes a stroll on the beach, on a sunny day, during vacation. Does that mean you know them? Hell no.

The Acronym Model of SERVANT Leadership®️ includes the principle of Empathy. We highlighted this at Modern Servant Leader with a scene from the movie Hidden Figures. In that scene, Kevin Costner’s character probably thought he’d walked a mile in the shoes of the team he led. However, it’s not until Katherine Johnson releases her frustrations to him that he realizes he did not fully appreciate her challenges. 

Are you only walking a mile in their shoes or are you walking in their muddy boots?

The next time you ask someone how they’re doing, make sure you really want to know. Then, ask more probing questions like:

▶️ No, really, how are you doing?

▶️ How’s your stress level lately?

▶️ Is there anything you want to talk about or share with me?

▶️ Is there anything you can use some help with?

When we suggest walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, we miss the point. We appease ourselves with a pithy statement and minimize realities. Instead, the next time you really want to empathize with those you lead, walk a mile in their muddy boots.

This post also appeared on our LinkedIn newsletter at:


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Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

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