Leading with empathy in 2018 | Guest editorial

Be open to your friends and family expressing differences of perspective.

  • Thursday, January 4, 2018 3:15pm
  • Opinion

By James Whitfield

Leadership Eastside

As president and CEO of Leadership Eastside, I have an obligation to pay attention to leaders and leadership affecting our region. As we wrap 2017, I offer some reflections and action steps for consideration by our community.

We must start with the combative tone infusing much of the discourse internationally, nationally, and yes, locally. Undoubtedly, readers will find some of the combat justified, in response to sincerely-felt injustices. However, for leaders to play upon — or worse yet, prey upon — people’s sense of insecurity is short-sighted and lamentable.

Sociologists tell us humans’ flight or fight instinct narrows our perspective, repelling us from potential threats and drawing us toward signs of safety. In times of social turbulence, it’s easy to see how this instinct can override people’s more collaborative inclinations. “Under threat,” the thinking goes, “we must help ourselves before trying to help others.”

This year is characterized by leaders declaring judgment about a symbol important to “Us,” then expecting others to demonstrate fidelity by following suit. Anyone expressing divergent thought or compassion for “Them” then gets framed as a threat to the cultural tribe. Check your social media feeds to see this in action. Some of the greatest vitriol of 2017 has been reserved for people who otherwise were “with us.”

There is a different human impulse that must be nurtured to overcome this ever-constricting cycle. It is empathy – the ability, and willingness – to share the experience of others.

As we navigate the perceived and real threats we face, it is this aspect of our humanity that allows us to recognize that the same threats are affecting others. In fact, these shared threats may be the only thing we believe we have in common, but empathy says, that’s plenty.

There is an old joke told about two people on a hike who happen upon a bear. One drops to a knee. “What are you doing,” the other asks. “Tightening my laces so I can run better,” is the reply. “Well, I don’t think we can outrun a bear,” explains the first. “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you,” the second yells, running away.

At this moment, too many of our leaders are encouraging us to run away and save ourselves. But that’s not why people banded together in tribes in the first place. It was to work together, to engage our empathy and create communities to ensure our ability to overcome, come what may.

This upcoming year, I invite you to evaluate what our leaders are triggering. And be open to your friends and family expressing differences of perspective. You could turn away and leave them to face the bear without you. But if we want 2018 to be different than 2017, we must lock arms, and face our threats together.

I can’t guarantee we’ll always be successful. But I can promise you’ll never end up in a situation where you will have to face your bears alone.

Happy New Year.

James Whitfield is the president and CEO of Leadership Eastside.

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