SERVANT Leadership Principle: Empathetic

The servant leadership principles include empathy. Walking a mile in their shoes is not enough. We must walk a mile in their muddy boots. Read examples from Hidden Figures, Mother Teresa, and Herb Kelleher. We also cover attributes like appreciation, care, concern, healing, encouragement, and more.
The servant leadership principles icon: EMPATHY. The empathy icon is two outlined heads overlapping and sharing one eye. To the right is a collection of smaller icons for the other principles and the words: SERVANT Leadership Principle - EMPATHETIC.

Background: This post is part of a series defining the principles of The Acronym Model of Servant Leadership®️ (SelflessEmpatheticResoluteVirtuousAuthenticNonpartisan, and Thorough). For more, visit the overview at this link or sign up for the free online course, Servant Leadership 101.

The second principle in The Acronym Model of SERVANT-Leadership®️ is Empathetic. In order to lead people, you need to know what it feels like to walk a mile in their muddy boots. Stop saying, “walk a mile in their shoes“. When we ask someone how they are doing, we generally only hear the good. Therefore, we must dig deep to understand what it means to be them on their toughest days or greatest challenges. THAT is walking a mile in their muddy boots. Even if you’ve never been in their position, you must have the empathy to perceive their circumstances, from their point of view.



Leaders who lose the ability to empathize lose the ability to lead.

What Empathy Looks Like

Dale Carnegie, in his classic book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People” explains the importance of empathy. When empathizing with a person, Carnegie says, you should always tell them that if you were in their shoes (or muddy boots), you would feel the same way. Which is true, of course. If you were born where they were born, grew up in the same family, experienced all the same matters, you would be that person. Therefore, you would feel the same. This simple recognition has the power to diffuse many difficult situations. But it must be genuine.

In this scene from the movie, Hidden Figures, Al Harrison is taught empathy by NASA scientist Katherine Johnson.

The ability for a leader to genuinely empathize enables them to relate to those they lead. Through active listening, the leader is able to hear the challenges of stakeholders. Then, that leader can relay their understanding to those they serve. Stakeholders who believe the leader understands their challenges will endorse that leader and invest in their mission. In fact, this is often the difference between employees who work for money and those who work for a mission – whether or not the leader is empathetic.

What Empathy is Not

Empathy is not a weakness. To the contrary, empathetic leaders often spend a great deal of time hearing about the pain and suffering of constituents. To do so and remain positive and optimistic requires a great deal of fortitude.

Empathy also is not caving into every concern or fear of those you serve. Leaders must maintain their resolve and cannot waffle on many decisions. Otherwise, the followers will lose confidence and be uncertain of the direction a leader will take.

Attributes of Empathy for Servant Leaders

Previous servant leadership models defined many empathetic attributes as important to servant leaders. These include the following from Spears and others1, Frick & Sipe2 as well as Russell & Stone3 (2002).

  • Empathy (Spears, Frick & Sipe)
  • Skilled Communication (Frick & Sipe)
  • Showing Care and Concern (Frick & Sipe)
  • Expressing Appreciation (Russell & Stone, Frick & Sipe)
  • Negotiating Conflict (Frick & Sipe)
  • Healing (Spears)
  • Encouraging Others (Russell & Stone)

Examples of Empathetic Servant Leaders

Many examples exist of empathetic servant leaders. Here are a couple:

Mother Teresa smiles as she looks off to her left in this black-and-white photo. She appears to be in her 50s.

Mother Teresa

The very mention of her name brings images of a kind and caring woman. In fact, in addition to her calling, Mother Teresa began her ministry when she felt an incredible sense of empathy for the poor and suffering in Calcutta. Mother Teresa’s incredible sense of empathy helped her ministry grow to reach 133 countries, including over 4,500 sisters.

Herb Kelleher laughs hardily as he looks to his right. He wears a dark jacket and a button down shirt.

Herb Kelleher

Herb Kelleher, the charismatic co-founder and long-time CEO of Southwest Airlines was known to show a great deal of empathy throughout his leadership at the company. In fact, thanks to his leadership principles, Southwest Airlines remains among the greatest examples of SERVANT Leadership businesses today. Perhaps the greatest example of his empathy was displayed when we would spend Thanksgiving day helping baggage handlers load planes so they could get home sooner to their own families.

Question: Which attribute of empathetic servant leaders do you think is most important?

1. Spears, Larry: Power of Servant Leaders (Greenleaf, Spears, 1998); Servant Leadership: A Journey into… (Greenleaf, Spears, 2002); and more
2. Sipe, James W. & Frick, Don M.: Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership: Practicing… (2009)
3. Russell, Robert F. & Stone, Gregory A.: A Review of Servant Leadership Attributes: Developing… (Leadership and Organization Development Journal, 2002

Read More About The Acronym Model of SERVANT Leadership®️


Picture of Ben Lichtenwalner

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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