Welcome to the I Am A Leader blog series, featuring leaders who make a difference. Today’s guest blogger is Sarah Matz. Sarah Matz has worked in the government and political communication fields for more than a decade. Her experience includes work in the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the State of Texas. She holds a BS in Criminal Justice and is currently working toward her Masters in Communication and Organizational Leadership at Gonzaga University. This summer she spent a month in Italy as part of the Gonzaga-in-Cagli program and earned a certificate in Intercultural Communication and International Media.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” ~ Atticus Finch
In the classic book To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee explores the ideas of personal integrity and social injustice through the eyes of six-year old Scout Finch. Since the 1960s when the book was first published, readers have looked to Atticus Finch, Scout’s father and the story’s protagonist, as an enduring moral hero and model of integrity. However, to me the fundamental message in this story is the value of empathy.
Over the years, I have thought a lot about the role empathy plays in our lives and how it relates to leadership, service, and community. I discovered that the definitions are wide-ranging and the term holds various meanings. For example, theology professor, Andrea Hollingsworth defines empathy in the Journal of Religion and Science as “the capacity to be affected by and share in the state of another (or others) in such a way that we maintain self-awareness even as we ‘feel into’ the other’s experience.” Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, author of The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, argues that “empathy is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and respond to their thoughts and feelings with appropriate emotion.” Furthermore, Parker J. Palmer, author of The Courage to Teach says, “If we want to support each other’s inner lives, we must remember a simple truth: the human soul does not want to be fixed, it wants simply to be seen and heard.”
Although each definition is different, I see two common characteristics: listening and relating. From this perspective, empathy is not only a leadership tool; it is a vital part of the human experience. Empathy is how we expand our worldviews, seek understanding, and serve others. It is the essence of personal growth and leadership. Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, creators of The Leadership Challenge suggest, “One talent leaders need to strengthen is the ability to hear what is important to others. By knowing their constituents, by listening to them, and by taking their advice, leaders are able to give voice to constituents’ feelings.”
Empathy has an especially important role in environments where conflict is inherent. Throughout the course of my career in political communications, I have seen firsthand the value of empathy and what can happen when empathy is absent. Our personal and work relationships suffer, conflict is overwhelming and less constructive, and we may lose sight of our personal and professional responsibilities. On a larger scale, the erosion of empathy can influence the very health of our communities.
In relation to global conflict resolution, Baron-Cohen believes, “usually we are dependent on diplomatic channels, legal frameworks, or military methods. But all those things operate at a very abstract level and they don’t seem to get us very far…Empathy is about two people—two people meeting, getting to know each other and tuning in to what the other person is thinking and feeling.” As an example, Baron-Cohen explains the meeting of Nelson Mandela and former South African president F. W. de Klerk, which lead to the end of apartheid, “The progress that came out of just that one relationship—well, arguably, it broke through where all other methods had failed, and at far less cost in terms of human life.”
The messages of empathy illustrated above are valuable lessons that extend well past history and the fictional “tired old town of Maycomb.” In my own path as a leader, empathy has been a powerful way to communicate more effectively, build relationships, and understand this world and where I fit in. I hope the mark I leave in the minds and hearts of those that follow me is this: never lose sight of humanity, love fearlessly, and seek understanding before seeking to be understood. I’m no expert yet, but I firmly believe that opening ourselves up to listening and sharing is what leadership is all about and it will enable us to unlock endless possibilities.
A special thank you to Sarah Matz for sharing her insights about leadership with us today! Stay tuned every Friday as the I Am A Leader blog series continues. Please share this blog post via Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Let’s continue the conversation on Twitter using the #iamaLEADER hash tag! You can connect with SOS Leadership on Twitter here and Sarah Matz here.
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