The Power of Empathetic Leadership

On the evening of June 3, 2017, a van was driven into a crowd of people walking across London Bridge. Eight people were killed, 48 people were injured. The three men in the van were all killed.

This attack came less than two weeks after 23 people were killed and 119 people were injured at the end of an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena.

In less than 14 days, England was struck twice by terrorist attacks. A total of 31 people were killed and 167 people were injured, many of them seriously.

Less than 48 hours after the London Bridge attack, United States President Donald Trump Tweeted criticism of how the mayor of London responded to the attack:

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After two brutal attacks in England, President Trump thought that more should be done to prevent further attacks, and that the citizens of London should, in fact, be alarmed. They should be doing everything they can to prevent further attacks, and the mayor was wrong (in President Trump’s opinion) to suggest anything less.

Today as I write this, it is June 14th, 2017, only 11 days after the second attack. What must it like to be in England right now? What causes alarm and concern on a crowded street? How do people react when they hear an unexpected, loud noise? How do parents talk to their children about being safe, vigilant and caring?

In the hours after the London Bridge attack when the city was still scared, still trying to figure out exactly what happened, when people may have still been trying to learn if their loved ones were alive or not, I wish President Trump had shown empathy rather than anger and indignation.

Empathy, though, can be difficult. In order to be empathetic, we need to put aside our own feelings,  interests and opinions, and imagine we in  the shoes of someone else. What are their concerns? Their interests, their fears? What do they want?

Practicing a little empathy myself, I imagine that President Trump saw what happened in London, and didn’t want the same thing happening in the United States. I imagine he wanted to assure American citizens that he would react to a similar attack with strength, power and decisiveness. I also imagine he wanted to use the events in London as an opportunity to forward his own agenda of banning citizens of Muslim countries from entering the United States.

However, if President Trump had taken the time to exercise empathy, I like to think he would have recognized that Mayor Khan, seeing his city lost in chaos and fear, realized the very best thing he could do was to help make the people of London feel a little bit safer, and little bit more calm. More police were being deployed throughout the city, and Mayor Khan wanted the people of London to know he and his government was doing everything they could do to keep everyone safe.

When we are truly being empathetic, we are taking the time to consider another person’s point of view. Whether you are Tweeting about world affairs, or making a Facebook post about a party you just attended, take a moment to ask yourself what is the situation of the other person? Are they happy? Proud? Scared? Suspicious? Eager? Though we can never guarantee to accurately guess what someone else may be thinking, we can use our experiences and what we know about the other person to make a pretty good guess.

When we are in someone else’s shoes, we are on the “other” side. We can see things we did not see before. There is newfound transparency, and we can see a perspective and truth we could have never seen before.

Maybe we even sacrifice a bit of our own interest as empathy puts the interests and concerns of another person before your own. For instance, if President Trump imagined he was in Mayor Khan’s position, he may have instead Tweeted:

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Or, if President Trump still wanted to forward his own agenda while being empathetic, he could have Tweeted:

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When we are empathetic, we are communicating with generosity and transparency. We break down walls because we can imagine how other people feel, and we find ourselves sharing their hopes and concerns. When our leaders are empathetic, the benefits extend to larger groups, like departments, teams, cities, states and countries.

Actions and words have real power and impact. Let those words be words of empathy.

*The first Tweet shown above was posted by Donald Trump on June 5th, 2017. The 2nd and third Tweets are fake, which I produced on https://faketrumptweet.com/. 

My Best Worst Day

I was sure that whatever was making my vision a little blurry would be rinsed away in the shower, and I could get on with my day. I had just gotten out of bed. I had to get breakfast, get dressed, and my wife and I had to get our six and three year old daughters off to school so we could each get to work. It was January 23, 2002.

I got into work, and it felt like I was looking through a piece of gray saran wrap. It wasn’t so much that my vision was blurry…it was dull. Whatever I thought would be rinsed away earlier was still there. I had my optometrist take a look. “Larry,” he said, “I want to send you to see someone else. There’s blood in your eye.”

I was in touch with my wife and my boss along the way to let them know what was going on. They were each appropriately concerned, and wanted me to keep in touch.

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The ophthalmologist pointed bright lights in my eye. Dye was injected into my veins. Snapshots were taken of my eyeball. “I need to do some more tests,” he said, “and I will call you at home tonight, but I think you had a stroke, a retinal vein occlusion.” I was 35 years old.

It was now about 3:00 in the afternoon, and I was close enough to work that I stopped in to check my voice mail (yes, we still did that in 2002). My boss was happy to see me, and was very sorry to hear I may have had a stroke.

I went to my office, and the director of Human Resources stopped in to see me. “Larry, I heard there was something wrong with your eye. Are you OK?” I explained everything that happened that day, and that I was sure I would be just fine.

But then she didn’t leave. She just stood in the doorway of my office.

“Is there something else I can do for you?” I asked.

“I’m here to let you go” she said.

Only four months after the horrific events of 9/11, our company was struggling as were so many other companies. Some of my friends had lost their job earlier that week. After working at the company for nine years, it was now my turn.

I have told this story dozens of times, and always the first response is “…and they still let you go? Even though they knew you had a stroke?!?”

Yes, they still let me go, and good for them for doing so. I was not bed-ridden, and they had to trim their staff rolls to remain a viable business. They gave me severance, out-placement support, and health insurance for several months. They did the right thing, for the right reasons, in the right way. And what a gift that was.

I could not be very concerned about my job loss, because I was so concerned about my vision. On the other other hand, I could not be very concerned about my vision because I was so concerned about finding my next job. My concerns cancelled each out quite nicely, thank you very much.

I was out of work for 13 months. As difficult as that time was, and as much as I did not want to be out of work, I came out ahead in almost every way.

  1. I got to spend more time with my daughters. I was able to be present, available and involved in ways that are so much more challenging when work took me away from home for 9 hours a day.
  2. Much to my surprise, I found that I enjoyed networking. I was good at it. I was fearless. I called people I did not know, and they actually met with me. I learned a lot about other people, and about myself. It was as a direct result of my networking efforts then that I am in the career I am in now, over 15 years later.
  3. I was more prudent in the way I spent money, and my wife was a vigilant bookkeeper. I did not need gas for a commute, I did not need to buy lunches with co-workers at the office. And while I did not enjoy collecting unemployment checks, somehow we got by, and we found ourselves still financially healthy by the time I went back to work.
  4. My wife and I have always been there for each other, but perhaps never more so than during my time out of work. She was there to support me, there to believe in me, there to encourage me. Her love and support felt nothing short of unconditional.

15 years later, I am in a career that I love, my family life is strong and happy, and I wear eyeglasses. I continue to try to grow and improve as a father, husband and professional every day, and I know I would not be where I am now in work or at home had it not been for the events of that very best of worst days.