Empathy and a Book Worth Re-Reading

I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy recently. Empathy is so crucial especially for someone in a leadership position. We cannot know exactly what someone else is thinking or feeling, but we can try to understand, to listen, and to empathize without being condescending.

It is said that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a “blue blood,” coming from a rich and privileged family. After his bout with polio at age 39, he became a more humble and empathetic person, finding common bonds with his fellow “polio’s.” This empathy was crucial as he led the nation through the difficult Depression and created programs to address major domestic and international problems.

Let me share a bit about John Howard Griffin, the author of Black Like Me. I first read this book when I was in high school. I remember being disturbed by what I was reading, but I had difficulty really understanding about racial inequaliy because it was so foreign to me, living in Hawaii. With the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, I felt it was time to reread Black Like Me. I’m glad I did. The book had a much greater impact on me this time around.

As I was reading, there were times when I had to stop and put the book to the side because what I read made me so angry. I kept questioning why racial equality still exists in our country when this book was published in 1961, nearly 60 years ago. I could not imagine the level of empathy that John Howard Griffin had when he decided to temporarily become a Black man and travel to different cities in the segregated Deep South. Reading about his experiences was heart-wrenching and full of despair.

According to the “Afterword,” written on the 50th anniversary of the book’s release, John Howard Griffin suffered a severe concussion during World War II which led him to become blind for ten years. During that time, he became preoccupied with racism. These are his words: “For the blind man, the whole issue of racism on the basis of inferiority according to color or race is solved axiomatically. He can only see the heart and the intelligence of a man, and nothing in these things indicates to the slightest whether a man is white or black, but only whether he is wise or foolish.” He goes on to say, “The racists can see but they have no perception. Is not the gift of sight then being abused, since it leads men to judge an object by the accident of its color rather than by its real substance – is a red table any more of a table than a green one?” These powerful words explain why Griffin did what he did, going through the process of darkening his skin via medication, shaving his head, and becoming a Negro in the South in 1959 during a time of great racial unrest. Griffin actually walked in the shoes of a Black man, experiencing the injustices and the hatred based solely on the color of one’s skin.

I am concerned about the lack of empathy that is often displayed in our country today. We are sometimes so wrapped up in our own feelings that we cannot relate to the feelings of others. As a leader, it is important to have the kinds of experiences that lead to empathy. If we are born into a “blue blood” family, are we able to understand the challenges of those who are less fortunate? If so, what do we do to make things better for everyone, including those who may be struggling? Do we build positive relationships with others? Being aware of people’s behaviors can give us cues to how they are feeling, and when we notice subtle changes, having a conversation can be just what is needed at that time. Empathetic leaders are good listeners and know that honest discussions can lead to the kind of trust that is essential to the organization.

2020 has been a difficult year. More than ever, we need empathetic leaders who can bring us together to solve the problems that divide us.

Some resources about empathy:
Ages & Stages: Empathy
Can Empathy Be Taught?
There are Actually 3 Types of Empathy