Jacquelynn Cotten Of Spiritual Support System: 5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Builds Trust and Loyalty — Empathy strengthens relationships by demonstrating understanding and care for team members. For instance, I once listened empathetically to a team member’s personal challenges with work-life balance. Adjusting deadlines and workload accordingly not only eased their burden but also earned their loyalty and commitment to our team.

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is increasingly recognized as a pivotal leadership trait. In an ever-evolving business landscape, leaders who exhibit genuine empathy are better equipped to connect, inspire, and drive their teams towards success. But how exactly does empathy shape leadership dynamics? How can it be harnessed to foster stronger relationships, improved decision-making, and a more inclusive work environment? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Jacquelynn Rene Cotten.

Jacquelynn Rene Cotten, born on April 1, 1989, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, has transformed her life from hardship to empowerment. Her early years were marred by domestic violence, spiritual and verbal abuse, poverty, and familial substance abuse. In her 20s, she battled addictions to alcohol, sex, and purging, facing legal troubles, including a DUI.

At 23, Jacquelynn became a mother, a turning point that inspired her to overhaul her life. She quit her harmful habits and balanced a nanny job while preparing for her daughter’s arrival in February 2013. A year and a half later, as a single mother without a home or car, she relied on food stamps and state aid, sleeping on a friend’s couch while striving to improve her circumstances.

In 2019, pregnant and recently laid off from her corporate marketing job, Jacquelynn faced an uncertain future. The dismissal just before Thanksgiving spurred her into action. Using her final paychecks to secure her basic needs, she lived frugally and launched her coaching and content company during the global shutdown.

In 2020, the loss of her first child’s father sparked a significant spiritual awakening, prompting her to found Spiritual Support System, despite societal expectations in the South. Her experiences in corporate America, marked by sexual harassment, lack of empathy, and unfair work policies, fueled her passion for mental health advocacy.

Jacquelynn hosts the podcast “Just Women Talking Shit,” and is featured in the upcoming book “Spiritual Awakenings Part 2” set to be released in August 2024. She creates and manages social media content, leads the Spiritual Portal annual retreat, and is the founder of Spiritual Support System. An aspiring stand-up comedian, she is determined to create a company culture catering to those with chronic and mental illnesses. She is shifting the paradigm of what women in business can build, ensuring they don’t sacrifice their health and happiness for success.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about empathy, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

A week before Thanksgiving, I was fired from my marketing specialist position at an employment agency who had hired me under the table from a popular dealership. I was their internet sales and marketing department and the employment agency needed someone to redirect marketing and build a social media presence. I took the job gladly to evade my toxic work environment at the dealership and long hours away from my daughter. I was so furious when the father of the owner who hired me was the one who fired me because I had never spoken to him until then. It felt extremely impersonal, and honestly, I took offense to it. I knew the job wasn’t for me and that I didn’t fit the company’s mold, so it felt like total rejection. However, I decided, once I worked through my feelings and tears, to use it as an opportunity to build something that worked with my illnesses and the time freedom I would find myself dreaming about while working for someone else. I decided to take my marketing skill set to the internet and find my own clients but speak up and begin sharing my journey around why I refuse to work a traditional job ever again. In doing so, I’ve built an agency that creates content for other businesses alongside a coaching company and the podcast.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

One of my coaching programs, 3-Month Evolution, calls fell on my birthday this year. Not only did my friend, who began as my first-ever coaching client, drive her and her family all the way from Illinois to Mississippi to meet us all and stay at our home, but… She and my clients in the program coordinated a whole birthday surprise where they pretended to show up for the coaching call, interrupted me coaching to wish me happy birthday (some of them even had speeches prepared!), presented me with a bouquet of flowers, and proceeded to make me cry in awe for the remainder of the call. I had never felt so seen or heard. The young girl who was bullied, never fit in, and often forgotten jumped for joy. The whole thing was recorded and I have it to watch until my last birthday.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

My company stands out because I am a very empathetic, compassionate, loving, mindful, and emotionally intelligent leader. I know that I am only as strong as my weakest link, but also that if my clients aren’t happy, then it is feedback that I need to do and be better. Although my company is only four years old, I know the importance of integrity, honesty, culture, community, and mental health in the workplace. I openly use cannabis and work with a lot of holistically empowered entrepreneurs. When people work with me, they feel at home because they know that they will never be judged and that my goal is to facilitate transformations in their best interests, not my own, whether it be in coaching or content.

Story time: I became fascinated with the internet at the age of 12. I became fascinated with marketing just 10 years later. The combination of the two, mixed with extreme general and social anxiety, is what lead me to craft an online “persona.” I felt that being overlooked in life couldn’t happen in the online space because I could be whoever I wanted to be. In doing so, I gained confidence and found myself by making online friends around the world. I never thought my fasciation with finding other unique and weird people on the internet who felt alone in real life would turn into anything. But it did… Here I am at age 35. I now take online relationships to real life experiences and bring people together, but it started just a couple years ago when I met my first client, Katie, in New Orleans. It was the first time I’d met someone from across the country, much less spent a weekend walking the city with. Since then, I used the courage and momentum to go out on a limb to ask another online friend (my former coach) if she would lead a retreat with me. We had never met in person, only ever meeting virtually for our sessions. However, when we met in person, it was as if we had known each other our whole lives. We led the retreat, created lifetime memories, and brought a group of women together that perhaps never would have met otherwise.

I just do things differently. I don’t pretend to be perfect or have all my shit together. I see a person’s heart, vision, and help them create plans that reflect their dreams. With that comes a lot of responsibility, but I think it works so well because of the supportive community and culture I’ve built within my space.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Underdog — Coming from a large family without money or many resources, I was told no a lot. Considering my family’s history, habits, and reputation, I was deemed guilty by association. I knew that I was at a disadvantage, especially when I began sleeping over at other kids’ houses where I saw how “normal” their lives were. I got tired of hearing no, tired of being doubted, tired of being looked over, picked last, forgotten about, and so on that I developed this victim to victor mentality. I wanted to prove wrong the bullies, boys who broke my heart, and people who made me feel small. So that’s what I set out to do and continue to do. I do not like being told what I can and cannot do. If someone doubts me, it doesn’t bother me as much, but if I doubt myself, I use it as motivation to overcome the doubt and come out top dog. It constantly challenges me and allows me to forever grow.

Dedicated — I do not give up easily. I have started so many businesses and have pursued so many opportunities in my pursuit of happiness that I have lost count. I’ve been told no, laughed at, looked and talked down on, more times than I can count. As a young person, I was devastated and felt a lot of shame around failure. But in rewiring my brain and doing identity work, I know that failure is my friend. The more I fail, the faster I succeed. Staying dedicated to my vision and lifetime legacy goals is what continues to drive me every day.

Emotionally intelligent — I’ve had a hard life and know how rough it can be. Regardless of the success I achieve, I keep compassion and emotional intelligence in general in the forefront of my mind. I used to have a very short fuse and take everything, especially confrontation, personally. However, in my findings, and failures, I know that emotional intelligence is a serious skill set that all leaders can benefit from. Humans tend to get wrapped up in emotions and get their feelings hurt pretty easily. However, when we remove emotion from a lot of situations and simply focus on healthy, productive communication, leading others becomes less challenging. I am here to change lives, build a legacy, and help people do the same. I can’t be wrapped up in my personal emotions or take too much personally anymore if I want to see the success I desire. Leading is a tough job, but someone has to do it.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

When I was looking to advance my coaching business, I had two assistants at the time, I was considering working with a business coach and her team who would help me advance my offers. However, I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to take out a business loan to do so. Within this same timeframe, another coach, who I had hired me as a copywriter within her agency in the beginning of company venture, had announced she was opening up spots to work 1:1 with her. I trusted/trust her tremendously, so I asked her input. After our conversation and never being followed up with by the other team who had a high-priced coaching package with all the bells and whistles — I followed my intuition and went with the less expensive coach who I am still working with til this day. She showed me that big companies aren’t always the most attentive and that I like working more 1:1 with a mentor rather than being thrown in a pot of people. Working with her has completely changed the way I do business. I have changed my business model, offer Mobile Mentorship instead of lengthy Zoom calls, and help others create ease and automation in their lives. I never want to be that big company who forgets to even follow up with someone after I just asked them to spend 5+ figures. I keep this experience fresh in mind so I don’t ever make any human feel like just another number. I take business seriously, I do, but I love that I do business so differently, without all the pressure buying, money marketing, and loss of connection with my audience.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define empathy in a leadership context, and why do you believe it’s a vital trait for leaders to possess in today’s work environment?

Empathizing with others as a leader means being able to put myself in another person’s shoes, see their perspective, listen to their feelings, and not challenge them, but accept them fully. I come from a long line of prideful people. I noticed at a young age how pride poisoned relationships. I especially noticed how the workplace in general lacked empathy. Many work positions I found myself in were very cut and dry. There was no compassion towards circumstances, invisible illnesses, scheduling, or enforcing healthy work boundaries. I think it is extremely important in today’s work environment to master and display empathy because mental illness and a person’s overall wellbeing is deeply affected by his/her work environment and conditions.

Can you share a personal experience where showing empathy as a leader significantly impacted a situation or relationship in your organization?

There have been several instances where being empathetic has helped a situation within my business. I work a lot with women who need help overcoming situations in life (usually very uncomfortable and scary) in order to live a happier, more fulfilled life. However, the work is hard. It requires asking a lot of questions that can lead the mind down a spiral so it isn’t uncommon for me to sit and listen to my client when she is struggling with these breakthroughs. Displaying empathy has created a safe space for them to share their truths. It builds trust and yields the best results/transformations.

How do empathetic leaders strike a balance between understanding their team’s feelings and making tough decisions that might not be universally popular?

Do your best to master emotional intelligence and your intuition. We do need to listen to our team’s feelings, but we can’t cater to every little thing obviously. I think it’s important to give yourself grace and always remember that if it’s your company that you do know what is in its best interest. Unfortunately, being a leader does come with some difficult challenges to navigate and overcome. Accepting that comes with the territory helps some. Making decisions that might not universally popular can be a bit nerve-wracking, but I remind myself that everything is temporary and the experience will later be feedback I can learn from.

How would you differentiate between empathy and sympathy in leadership? Why is it important for leaders to distinguish between the two?

Empathy involves understanding and sharing others’ feelings, fostering genuine connections and trust within teams. Sympathy, in contrast, can create distance and may lead to superficial gestures that don’t address deeper needs. It’s important for leaders to distinguish between the two because empathy builds inclusive environments where team members feel valued and understood, whereas sympathy can inadvertently perpetuate stereotypes or paternalistic attitudes, hindering team dynamics and collaboration. Leaders who prioritize empathy cultivate stronger relationships, enhance communication, and promote a supportive culture that fosters innovation and productivity.

What are some practical strategies or exercises that leaders can employ to cultivate and enhance their empathetic skills?

Leaders can enhance their empathetic skills through practical strategies such as active listening workshops, where they practice listening without judgment and reflecting back understanding. Role-playing scenarios allow leaders to simulate different perspectives and challenges, fostering empathy in real-world contexts. Encouraging storytelling sessions and cross-cultural training helps leaders understand and appreciate diverse backgrounds within their teams. Feedback and self-reflection on their communication and leadership style can pinpoint areas for empathetic improvement. Empathy mapping exercises visually map out team members’ perspectives and emotions, deepening leaders’ understanding. Engaging in volunteer activities or mindfulness practices also cultivates empathy by broadening leaders’ awareness of others’ experiences and emotions. These strategies collectively empower leaders to create inclusive environments where team members feel understood, valued, and motivated.

How can empathy help leaders navigate the complexities of leading diverse teams and ensure inclusivity?

Empathy empowers leaders to understand and respect the diverse perspectives of team members, fostering trust and psychological safety within the team. By actively listening and communicating inclusively, empathetic leaders navigate conflicts, promote collaboration, and make decisions that consider the needs and contributions of all team members, ensuring a supportive and inclusive work environment. This approach not only enhances team cohesion but also drives innovation and productivity.

Based on your experience and research, can you please share “5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership”?

1 . Builds Trust and Loyalty — Empathy strengthens relationships by demonstrating understanding and care for team members. For instance, I once listened empathetically to a team member’s personal challenges with work-life balance. Adjusting deadlines and workload accordingly not only eased their burden but also earned their loyalty and commitment to our team.

2 . Enhances Communication and Collaboration — Empathetic leadership excels in communication by considering others’ perspectives. Engaging in regular empathetic listening sessions with employees has not only boosted morale but also fostered open dialogue and collaborative problem-solving within my team.

3 . Drives Innovation — Empathy encourages diverse perspectives and creativity. By understanding my team members’ motivations and challenges, I inspired a more inclusive brainstorming environment. This led to breakthrough ideas that catered to a wider range of customer needs, enhancing our company’s competitive edge.

4. Resolves Conflicts Effectively — Empathy aids in conflict resolution by acknowledging and addressing underlying emotions. For example, mediating a heated disagreement between team members involved empathizing with their concerns. This approach facilitates constructive dialogue and consensus-building, ensuring project success.

5. Creates Inclusive and Productive Teams — Empathy cultivates inclusivity by valuing diverse perspectives and experiences. Through empathetic leadership, I ensure all team members feel heard and respected. This inclusive culture not only boosted morale but also enhanced productivity and innovation among my team.

Are there potential pitfalls or challenges associated with being an empathetic leader? How can these be addressed?

Being an empathetic leader brings potential challenges such as emotional drain, over-identification with team members, difficulty in making tough decisions, blurred personal-professional boundaries, and perceived weakness in certain organizational cultures. To address these, it’s crucial for empathetic leaders to practice self-care through mindfulness and regular breaks, develop strong emotional intelligence to maintain boundaries and objectivity, seek feedback to balance empathy with organizational goals, and set clear boundaries between personal and professional interactions. By managing these challenges effectively, empathetic leaders can leverage their empathy to foster a supportive and inclusive work environment while maintaining their own well-being and leadership effectiveness.

Off-topic, but I’m curious. As someone steering the ship, what thoughts or concerns often keep you awake at night? How do those thoughts influence your daily decision-making process?

I get overwhelmed with wanting to make a bigger impact quicker. Slowing down and just taking it day by day can be a challenge at times because when you’re passionate about your company, team, clients, etc. sometimes I naturally want to keep plugging away at projects or transformations. However, Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s in those moments I remind myself that I am committed to the outcome and have released the timeline. Everything works out as it should and the people my company is meant to help will find us or we will find them all in divine timing.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I like to think that I have started a movement, slowly but surely. Spiritual Support System as a whole is dedicated to helping as many people as humanly possible unlock their full potential. By working through self-limiting beliefs, traumas, narratives, and circumstances within our support system, you will never feel alone or like you don’t matter. If we can teach one million people how to unlock their full potential through neuroscience and identity work, we can start the entire world’s healing process. Happy people make people happy. Hurt people hurt people. I want to help the world heal and I know that the work we do can help do that. Part of this mission is to become a billion dollar company so we can start numerous nonprofits, travel the world, and continue to spread good for humanity.

How can our readers further follow you online?


Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.