Most people are familiar with Martin Luther King, Jr, what he was able to accomplish and some of his famous speeches.

Many don't know enough about how he worked that made him such an effective leader.

There are many lessons to be gleaned from Dr. King's service and work, but there is one you must embrace that will make you a better leader for your business: empathy.

The New York Times offers a great definition of empathy:

"Empathy is actually a choice that we make whether to extend ourselves to others. The 'limits' to our empathy are merely apparent, and can change, sometimes drastically, depending on what we want to feel."

So does famed author Harper Lee:

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."

Dr. King had a strong degree of empathy for the people he was leading. As a result, he was an effective advocate and helped bring about significant changes in their lives.

As you lead your business, you have to be the mouthpiece for your customers. If you want to make life better for them, you need to have intimate knowledge of their challenges, the conditions that led them to be in the situation they are in, and the dreams, desires, fears, and frustrations they experience as they work to improve their situation.

The only way to do that effectively over time is by considering life from their point of view. One study noted that there are four specific attributes of empathy:

  • see the world as others see it
  • be non-judgmental about another's feelings or situation
  • understand another's current feelings
  • communicate the understanding of the other person

Here are two simple ways Martin Luther King, Jr. developed and exercised his empathy muscle, that enabled him to be such a life-changing leader.

1. He had frequent two-way communication with the people he served

As you read through the writings and speeches of Dr. King, one thing that becomes apparent is that he spent a lot of time talking to the people he was leading and fighting for.

While organizing and enacting the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycotts, there were numerous town hall meetings and consistent communication in between. As such, he and the team were able to make a workable plan and implement adjustments to it as needed.

When you are a leader, it can be easy to get caught up focusing on your daily tasks, creating solutions, or even talking to influencers who can help induce change . While all these steps are important, they only come after you've spent sufficient time in meaningful conversation with the people you are serving.

Then once you've implemented your solution, you still need to stay engaged to be able to address any unforeseen challenges that come to light.

Elon Musk recently showcased how well this works. He listened to a complaint from a Tesla owner on Twitter, and implemented a solution within six days.

2. He walked ten miles in their shoes

Dr. King took many opportunities to experience life just as many of the people he was leading. Whether it was marching arm and arm with them across the bridge in Selma, Alabama, getting thrown in jail for non-violent resistance along with other protestors, or moving his family into a run-down Chicago tenement building for six months to protest housing inequalities, he took many opportunities to experience their world.

You will be even more effective as a leader when you experience the plight of your customers for yourself. It'll help you pick up on and feel aspects of their struggle that they haven't even articulated to you.

And it will help you view both the problem and the solution with a new lens.

When I was a marketer at Johnson & Johnson, my teammates and I would often wear the insulin pumps and infusion sets we were promoting to better understand what it was like for someone with diabetes who was using our products.

Our experiences enabled us to make better decisions about how to talk about the product, and which features were most important to include.

You can be a great leader, just like Dr. King. And you don't have to become a brilliant orator to do so. Simply choose to practice empathy for the people you serve on a consistent basis. Then you'll be much more effective in your quest to making life better for them.

Published on: Jan 16, 2017