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Published on 10 August 2021

Empathetic Leadership – John 1:13-15

A few years ago, for the first time in my life, I experienced burnout, anxiety and depression. In hindsight, there were a combination of factors that led me to that place, and it was a horrible place. Having come out the other side (mostly), there are many lessons that I learned, as well as areas that I am still reflecting on in order to continue healing. As with every other painful or traumatic event in my life, the biggest lesson for me has been one of grace. I am able to empathize with a whole new set of people with whom previously I could only try and sympathize.

In the midst of the darkness, I found that most people were sympathetic; listening, nodding, and hugging (when we were allowed to do that). However, the conversations that I appreciated the most were the ones with those who had experienced something similar. They were able to empathize in a way others couldn't – they had been in my shoes. They knew the right questions to ask. They understood that judgement was unhelpful and even detrimental. When they asked how I was doing, "fine" was not an acceptable answer. They were also the ones who stayed in touch and proactively messaged, called and asked to meet up. Sympathy requires understanding, empathy requires understanding, an emotional connection, and the ability to feel someone else's pain. 

So, how does this work in leadership? For far too long we believed that leadership required a significant separation between leader and follower. I grew up in an environment where often the leader was feared. The follower did what was required out of a fear of penalty instead of out of a sense of loyalty to the person they were working for (this even applied to families); The leader/parent expressed what was required and the follower/child obediently performed or suffered the consequences. Unfortunately, there are some leaders, even Christian leaders, who still operate in this way.

Empathetic leadership is different. Empathetic leadership seeks to understand and connect with the emotions of the follower. Empathetic leadership is humble. In Hebrews 4:13-15 (NLT) we are told,

"13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes, and he is the one to whom we are accountable. 14 So then, since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. 15 This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. 16 So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most."

As the leader in your sphere, people are accountable to you. As such, people will necessarily approach you. How they do that, physically and emotionally, is largely up to you, even if unstated. The God of creation is the ultimate leader. For years, and even now for some, people would approach him in fear. The holy of holies in the temple was a place where priests went in fear of death. However, God's plan was always compassion We see many Old Testament examples of that. And, we know that his love and forgiveness culminated in the coming of Jesus. Jesus, therefore, is our prime leadership model.

These verses in Hebrews express the depth of empathy that Jesus shares with us. His humility in becoming "flesh and blood" and moving "into the neighbourhood" (Peterson, The Message, John 1:14), means that he understands our struggles and pain from an experiential knowledge, not a theoretical one, and he loves us anyway. Therefore, we can approach God with boldness knowing that we have received grace and mercy.

Do those who follow us feel the same? Are those who follow those who follow us confident that they will be treated with grace and compassion? Habit 5, in Stephen R. Covey's, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, reads, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." Are we as leaders modelling an “understanding first” approach?

As we begin to recover from the events of the last 18 months, modelling empathy and grace could be more important than ever. Those whom we lead will have faced, and may still be facing, challenges that have had a major impact on their wellbeing: physical, emotional and material. Our empathy could be the thing that rescues them at this critical time. That’s a lot of responsibility. Are you in?

Values should be stated as verbs and as we move forward post-Covid (hopefully), a commitment to Empathetic Leadership would fit well at the top of our values list.