This is my second post examining Larry C. Spears' list of the ten characteristics of servant leadership in his on-line article "On Character and Servant-Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders". His second bullet is this:
"Empathy: The servant-leader strives to understand and empathize with others. People need to be accepted and recognized for their special and unique spirits. One assumes the good intentions of co-workers and colleagues and does not reject them as people, even when one may be forced to refuse to accept certain behaviors or performance. The most successful servant-leaders are those who have become skilled empathetic listeners."
Anyone who has worked as an employee has undoubtedly discovered just how challenging this is for most leaders. The weak self-image of most leaders is so pronounced that it has become one of the most stereotyped and parodied concept of leadership. Dilbert's pointy-haired boss is just one of the many obvious examples.
Being a "boss" or a "manager" has virtually nothing to do with leadership (the argument of author Paul Glen in "Leading Geeks" notwithstanding). Managing is oversight of specific processes and procedures focused on a linear output. In a world of knowledge work, it is of significantly less importance than leadership, although still important from the perspective of making sure that accomplishments are aligned with organizational objectives.
Leading, rather, has much more to do with people, how autonomous they are, and what it is that compels them to work together. Empathy is a significant contributor to the discovery of dynamics that allow people to work together in synergy.
In Spear's explanation of empathy that I quoted above, there is a key word: strives. According to Dictionary.com, a principle element of striving is exerting great effort. This means that empathy isn't merely being open to obvious observations about others, but is rather an intense, intentional, and consistent study of others: Who are they? How are they special and unique? What do they do especially well? Where are their challenges?
Empathy requires listening. How well are you doing?