Leadership Empathy

design-10What do good leaders know about the emotions of those they lead?

Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman write and talk about the emotions of everyday people, leaders included. Goleman’s book, On Emotional Intelligence is a highly recognized and invaluable resource for today’s leaders (I believe it should be required reading for every pastor).

In a recent article, Goleman and Ekman detail 3 ways that a leader can sense what another person is feeling. Leaders who have a developed social and emotional intelligence are far more effective at leading others than those who do not. This concept is especially important to those of us who work closely with people who struggle or experience crisis. I found the information helpful in the continual honing of my leadership skills.

The first trait listed is “cognitive empathy,” which is simply being aware of how the other person feels and perhaps what they could be thinking at that time. Most people are able to read the emotions of others. Verbal and physical cues provide most of the data needed in order to identify the emotional state of others. However, leaders must be aware that, in some situations, being aware is not enough. This skill is appropriate when negotiating a deal or brokering a transaction. But in especially sensitive circumstances, others can perceive cognitive empathy as cold hearted, detached or non-caring. Depending upon the nature of the issue being addressed, cognitive empathy may not be enough.

When dealing with people in crisis, leaders should also display “emotional empathy.” Emotional empathy is when a leader feels the emotions of those they lead. It provides the ability to sense AND feel what is happening in the people around us. This is a vitally important trait for those in ministry, in helps industries, and especially for parents. Any married person had better master this skill! Of course, there are times when emotional empathy can hinder the effectiveness of a leader. An example may be a pastor who must provide care to a grieving family. If the minister cannot compose herself long enough to conduct a funeral service, they won’t be able to help the family much. There is a time to cry and laugh along with people, but there is also a time to maintain composure.

Ekman identifies a third element: “compassionate empathy,” which Goleman calls “empathic concern.” This type of empathy takes a leader beyond awareness and sensitivity – to action. We are moved to get involved. Once again, in crisis situations, this trait can be invaluable. Unless and until leaders regularly experience and express compassionate empathy, they are lacking a Christ-like attitude about leadership.

While we are not the Messiah, the Lord calls Christian leaders to not only be aware of and experience the emotions of those we lead, but at times, we are compelled to engage in helping to heal the hurting. James 2:15-16 provides thought: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (NIV) Not every situation requires a leader to have empathetic concern (we would be in a mess if they did), but leaders must never lose the ability to feel and take appropriate actions.

As the world becomes more complex, the responsibilities of leaders follow suit. It is necessary for us to be aware of emotions, feel along with those we lead and know what action to take and when.

It’s not as easy as some people think. So let’s work on it.

Why It’s Good to be the Minority Sometimes

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When you are the only one in the crowd who looks like you and talks like you, it’s a strange feeling. But it’s a valuable experience for us know what it is like to be really different from everyone else.

This happens occasionally on missions trip. I have had a few experiences where I was alone in a foreign country; I didn’t speak the language and I couldn’t read the signs. This happened to me both in Haiti and in Indonesia. Talk about feeling vulnerable! I tried to make myself as unnoticeable as possible. I didn’t want to bring attention to myself. No eye contact, look confident and brave, try to look tough so as to discourage any would-be thugs looking for an easy mark. And once those experiences were over, it was a huge relief to get back with a more familiar crowd – where I was like everyone else.

The picture above is my 2 year-old granddaughter, Sophia. She is being raised in Central America where her parents direct an orphanage (casashalom.net).  She is the only white child among 70. Blonde hair and blues eyes really stand out. If her family remains there, she will be raised as a member of the minority culture. While she will certainly face challenges because of this, she will grow up with a unique perspective on life.

The more of a minority you are, the more you feel out of place. Well, you are out of place – that’s the point! Stuff happens in your heart when it is painfully obvious that you are not like everyone else.

I think that there is tremendous value in, from time to time, being in the minority:

  • You learn compassion and empathy for people who live this way. Many people spend their entire lives as a minority. They can never truly relax. They are always being profiled. Now you know a little bit about how they feel – there is value in that.
  • You increase your awareness of and sensitivity to the culture around you. You watch others and try to behave as they do. Becoming a part of the people takes top priority. This is a valuable skill for missionaries.  The Apostle Paul discusses this in I Corinthians 9:19-23.
  • You walk carefully, not wanting to offend someone or create a cultural faux pas. One unintentionally rude mannerism can get you into big trouble.  You grow in your ability to relate to other cultures.
  • Your vulnerability keeps your ego in check. It’s hard to be arrogant when everyone thinks you are strange.
  • You learn to appreciate your familiar surroundings. Once you get back home, you can feel the security of your safe zone, and it feels nice.

I believe this also relates to our lives as Christ-followers on this earth. The Bible tells us that we are aliens; we are not citizens of this world (John 17:14, Philippians 3:20, I Peter 2:11).  We must remember that we are out of place here. Let’s not get too comfortable. Let’s not let down our guard. Let’s walk carefully. Remember, we are the minority.

Go for it. Take a trip or put yourself in a situation where you are the one who is different. Be deliberate about it. I think it will change your perspective.