Graduating with empathy

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by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

I love hopping on Voxer and listening to other leaders make the case for top leadership traits. Passion, communication, vision, ingenuity, integrity – the usual suspects. All solid traits, no doubt, yet I’m here to make the case for the underdog of emotions, the most underrated of all leadership traits: I’m here to amplify Empathy.

I’ve been serving in education for a decade, all of which has been in a large, urban school district serving primarily low socioeconomic students. If we’re being transparent (a trend I hope never gets old) serving in high-poverty schools can harden even the most passionate of educators. Maybe that’s a little shortsighted, as today’s educational landscape seems to contort and constrict just about all educators regardless of setting. Appreciating just how tough it is to be an educator helps when trying to understand why something as powerful as empathy sits buried at the bottom of the leadership trait totem pole. Today’s educators are so busy weathering the continuous tempest of change, we too often embrace the callous, cold reflection of our data and directives.

The reflective practitioner in me not only understands but has also been entirely guilty of the educator’s survival tactic of trading empathy for sympathy, the arm’s distance 2nd cousin to truly helping others. Unlike sympathy, empathy goes beyond feeling, beyond compassion; it pushes into action-verb territory as it forces us to step inside each other’s world, witnessing the struggle – free of judgment and perception. When we embrace empathy-based leadership or teaching practices what we’re really doing is committing to a lifestyle change, a paradigm shift that begs us to perpetually shift our perspective at will, depending upon whom we’re dealing with at any given moment.

And, well, it’s hard.

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Like water…

Sometimes our bodies own physiology makes legitimate excuses for our behavior. Let’s face it, our science shows we’re comprised of about 70% water and like water innately we tend to travel down the path of least resistance. Thus, if we leave it up to nature and I’m sure Darwin’s philosophy of Survival of the Fittest would affirm, empathy doesn’t stand a chance. In his book Teaching with Poverty in Mind, Eric Jensen makes the case that empathy absolutely must be taught, as it is not one of our six innate emotions yet imperative for successful socialization. Therefore, since we’re not born with the knowledge of empathy coupled with the fact it’s an arduous trait to continuously and effectively implement, we begin to understand exactly why empathy falls into the “I know I should be doing this but…” category, right next to exercising, clean eating and financial planning.

Going back to Jensen for bit, I actually think it’s dangerous to presume all leaders and teachers are capable of exercising empathy. The fact is, just like so many of our students, if they, too, weren’t taught empathy early on, there ‘s a strong chance they flat-out don’t possess it – at all. That’s a scary thought, a very, very scary thought yet nonetheless true. Furthermore, as 21st century leadership continues to shake-off the antiquated traits of leadership’s yesteryear, it’s important we disengage from the barbaric mindset that all leaders must be overtly tough and that vulnerability and emotional intelligence play second-fiddle to authority and power. And so, if we genuinely buy into the ideal that education is the key to unlocking the world’s potential and that our academic institutions are the last training outposts before we reach the world’s wilds, it then behooves us to identify empathy, analyze it, apply it, before finally – hopefully – creating cultures that reflect understanding, love and equity.

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Are you an empathy-based leader?

I leave you then with a little call-to-action: Are you an empathetic leader? Does it help steer your moral compass? If not, I beg you undergo this life-changing transformation, choosing to presume positive intent through embracing the feelings and emotions of others. If in fact you are, how are you ensuring empathy is a hallmark inside of your school, classroom or organization’s culture? How are you measuring such a qualitative construct to ensure it permeates and maximizes your leadership influence?

Let’s continue this dialogue in the comment section, Twitter feed and Voxer groups – our schools are counting on it!