Empathy is described as the trait that allows us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes to understand their situation and their responses to it. It is one of the most difficult personality traits to employ on a regular basis. And a recent book reminded me of the breadth of empathy that those in leadership positions can and should have.
To Obama, with Love, Joy, Anger, and Hope by Jeanne Marie Laskas is a delightful read about the letters sent to the White House during the presidency of Barack Obama. Now for those who push back immediately because this is about Barack Obama, I challenge you. Drop your preconceived notions that this book has a political agenda. This book reviews the thousands of letters and how President Obama chose to handle them. He wanted to hear the positive messages, the negative messages and the messages from citizens seeking to express a plea for help.
Obama previously stated that empathy “is at the heart of the moral code, and it how I understand the Golden Rule—not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes…I view th[e] quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying…people’s hopes and struggles as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes.”
How did Obama seek to exercise this trait? He set up an office to review all correspondence (electronic and mailed). The staff was trained extensively and took their jobs seriously to review this correspondence as if it was from their own family. Then he wanted to review 10 letters a day (positive and negative). He often sent a personal response to these concerned citizens. He was willing to read, to listen, and to respond to these individual letters.
When challenged in a letter about a perceived “socialist” agenda, he responded, “We do need to get control of governmental spending over the long term, and I am committing all of my teams to find places to cut out waste, fraud, and abuse. But please rest assured that I take my oath to uphold the Constitution seriously.”
When reacting to a despondent writer about his current situation, he wrote “Thanks for the powerful letter. I’m working as hard as I can to make sure that hard-working Americans like you have the opportunities you so richly deserve.”
Time and time again, he thoughtfully accepts responsibility for his actions, he encourages folks to overcome adversity, and he praises his fellow citizens in a compassionate and engaged way. He sees empathy “not as an end-all, be-all…Even after you’ve listened to somebody or seen them, they still have a concrete problem…And there are real conflicts and real choices.” To summarize, he notes that “story sharing and empathy and listening [creates] the conditions around which we can then have a meaningful conversation and sort through our differences and our challenges and arrive at better decisions because we’ve been able to hear everybody.”
Ms. Laskas’s methodical analysis of the correspondence material and the teams involved in the analysis and preparation of the 10 letters of the day (LADs in White House lingo) allow for a clear window into an administration that strove to make a difference in the lives of all Americans. Clearly not all Americans shared Obama’s views or policies, but he listened anyway and was duly empathetic.
His examples tell me that empathy reminds us—
- that we are all in this together
- that rather than judge others we should just make tangible strides in improving the life of our community and the lives of our fellow citizens
- that we are responsible to a Greater Being than ourselves and ultimately we are here to serve others
- that service to others is the right thing to do
- that the world doesn’t revolve around us, that we are just a small part but capable of significant good
Yes, empathy is complicated but things that improve our lives, the lives of others and the life of our communities are never easy.