Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Practicing empathy and humility instead of judgment

Today, I will be leading a 2 hour interactive introduction to collective leadership for a group of local high school teachers and administrators. And I couldn't be more excited to work with this audience. And yet, last night, as I was doing my final prep with my internal sponsor, who is a career teacher in her early forties (I think?), she said "I know this is a bit of a step down for you, because you are used to working with corporate leaders, but I think this audience will really get value from what you are bringing".
My first reaction was to think that she didn't understand how challenging it could be to work with corporate leaders! But then I realized what an unfair statement that would have been. In fact, I ran two incredibly gratifying workshops with corporate leaders from two different industries this week, and met some incredible change leaders.
I realized I did not want to add to the current judgmental storyline that is pervasive now - a storyline about evil corporations - maligned as being "selfish, corrupt, profiteering, exploitive of humans and the environment" and "too big to fail". The judgment or bashing comes from many directions - but ultimately - it arises from individuals like you and me who state a public opinion about the moral values and activities of a company as if "it" has a mind of "it's own". And as if it has "one mind". And then, often, we will further aggregate the sins of one company to an entire industry (the evils of petroleum companies, of pharmaceutical companies, of the finance industry, of the automotive industry. Or we will villainize an entire profession, e.g. teachers.... "they have summers off, they get tenure and then we are stuck with lazy, burned out teachers that only care about their pension, they don't understand "real work" or the "real world", they never really left high school....".
Remember the song from The Osmonds?

One bad apple don't spoil the whole bunch, girl.
Oh, give it one more try before you give up on love.
One bad apple don't spoil the whole bunch girl.
Oh, I don't care what they say,
I don't care what you heard.

I suggest that we STOP judging entire professions and industries and entities (shall we talk politics?), and start remembering that these entities are actually made up of human beings like me and you. Imperfect for sure - at least I am... But also full of dreams, aspirations, disappointments, fear, hope, purpose, apathy, and each and every person in these organizations was once a child.
Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is hard to feel empathy for a corporation. But we can certainly feel empathy for the individuals who work inside of the corporation, or in government, or in our schools. And if we can't quite connect emotionally enough to feel empathy, might we at take a stab at humility? While the Oxford dictionary defines humility as "a modest or low view of oneself", I prefer to think of it in this way - we don't know what we don't know.
“It is unwise to be too sure of one's own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
I have never been a teacher. I have never been a government official. I have never run for office. I have never worked for a petroleum company. But I know good people who have. I know them well. I've heard them talk passionately about their work, and why they chose their profession, why they chose their company, what they struggle with, and how they want to make their world better.
So, I can't wait to go work with these high school teachers and administrators today. They invited me in because they care deeply about their students and the future of education. I only hope that I can bring value and tools that will accelerate their success.