My last blog post considered the importance of context – connecting with the wisdom of understanding the place, culture, language, and the struggles and joys of relationships, which contribute to making each and every place unique and special.
Further wisdom dictates that our actions within any given context be rightly motivated and take account, wherever possible, of the impact they have on those who inhabit that context and their wider environment.
Whether consciously or not, our actions (and non-actions) do carry influence, and one of the key elements of the MA programme at ForMission college is the provision for students to reflect (inner and outer) on the influence they carry and how their interface with others is conditioned by their actions, attitudes, and those subtle, yet profound, motivations. Motivations are tell-tale signs of our character and our theology; what and who we truly value become evident.
Scripture frequently prefaces Jesus’ miracles with the words, ‘…he had compassion on him/her/them’. I suggest that an important element of right behaviour and good actions is the need to be ‘affected’ by others. In other words, to be able to imagine how ‘the other’ feels or thinks; to read the signs of distress or the needs (often silently communicated) that draw us to respond with compassion. Another way of articulating this is ‘empathy’; the essence of moving beyond ourselves to respond to those we are in contact with, and which compels us to engage with an appropriate action, or with wise words, or sometimes needing to simply listen attentively and re-assure.
The above inevitably requires leadership to be as much about connecting with and empowering others to move forward in their character-growth and fruitfulness as it is about directing and vision-casting ‘from the front’. There are many styles and approaches to leadership, of course, but a powerful Christ-like model is one where empathy is practised and valued. This is, I would also suggest, an increasingly-lost art, not least amongst us men. Our culture showers us with many voices and perspectives, yet that moment of reflection casting our own competitive desires to one side, enables us to tap into those empathic resources that are abundant within us.
Roman Krznaric’s stimulating book, Empathy – Why It Matters, And How To Get It should be a must-read for any course on leadership. His research leads him to assert that not only is empathy as much a male quality as a female one, but that it can and should constantly be cultivated and exercised. Responding to a need with true compassion, as Jesus did, is likely to make our actions not only more e/affective, but more Christ-like; getting in touch with our homo empathicus draws out our essence without the ego getting a say!
Krznaric talks about ‘outrospection’ as a mode of thinking that helps to keep us healthily-balanced, to move beyond our tendencies toward selfishness and develop our cognitive empathy towards others; this video illustrates it well.
As Jesus showed us, let’s drink deep from God’s well of wisdom, that our thinking and actions might be truly compassionate and of real benefit to others. Empathy is one of the greatest gifts of good leadership and a key ingredient for social transformation at both individual and corporate levels.