Understanding the value you can potentially create for society requires great perspective – a sense of self-awareness accompanied by a motivation to solve real problems that affect someone else’s life
It goes without saying that the desire to impact someone’s life is inherently gratifying, but it also requires empathy – can you put yourself in someone else’s shoes?
“Once upon a time, a shoe company sent two salesmen to Africa to determine the market potential for products. One salesman was sent to the East Coast of Africa, while the other salesman was sent to the West Coast of Africa. Both the salesmen completed a basic survey of the target market and called back to the office. The salesman sent to the east coast of Africa reported: “No one here wears any shoes, there is no market for us here!”. The other salesman sent a message “No one here wears any shoes, there is a huge market for us, send inventory fast!”
For the longest time leadership has been associated with famous and ‘influential’ people like politicians, actors or musicians. This creates the impression that leadership only occurs in high levels of fame, wealth, power or large organizations but this is untrue because leadership is not a role.
Leadership is an action, and this action can also occur among ordinary people as well. Understanding this can make us realize that not all politicians or idolized people are leaders, some of them are just good managers. One writer made me understand the difference between a manager and a leader and ever since then that’s how I answer if someone asks me what’s a leader. A manager focuses on getting to the top of the ladder as quickly as possible while a leader will first ask himself if the ladder we are climbing is leaning on the correct wall. This teaches us a lot about leaders, they are critically minded, and they make decisions based on how they will affect the future or the end goal.
Amongst many other things, leadership is an action. You don’t become a leader because you say you want to change things. Leadership is when you do things that say you want change. This is how you inspire people to follow you.
Dr Martin Luther King Jnr who today is revered all over the world as an icon of justice and equality and one of the 20th century’s most defining figures, the epitome of a great leader even in the modern times. Many individuals want to effect change, however, do not know or understand how to seek it. He had no issues with seeking and implementing change as it was something that he truly believed in. He always portrayed contrarian viewpoints when dealing with his followers. He listened to what they had to say, felt empathy towards what many individuals were going through and wanted to heal the pain that many people felt. He understood and wanted to make everyone aware of his beliefs and why they were the best to believe in.
The most important thing that stood out in his life and what he is remembered for, is that he knew his journey would be difficult, yet he stood by it until the very end.
I personally believe that such tenacity and resilience was greatly influenced by the environment in which he was raised. He jumped from a second story window at the age of 12, after an alleged previous attempt at suicide following the traumatic death of his grandmother. Despite these events, he was a brilliant student, and his break came when he met his first mentor at 15, Benjamin Mays, who suggested he follow the mentorship of Howard Thurman who was the dean at Howard University and Boston University for more than two decades. The decision to fight using non-violence was shared to him by Thurman which he had learned from Gandhi.
Dr King was an extremely sensitive child who suffered from numerous bouts of severe depression. The racial discrimination and abuses suffered by his family and community deeply impacted his life. Thus, it prepared him for his journey of leading the Americans in the civil nonviolence and disobedience movement. In one of his speeches he emphasized the importance of moving forward regardless of the circumstances we are facing today by saying, “Life for none of us has been a crystal stair but we must keep moving, we must keep going ,if you can’t fly, run, if you can’t run walk, if you can’t walk crawl but by all means keep moving”.
Great leaders portray a sense of vulnerability, and they aren’t afraid to change their mind or admit they’re wrong. For a moment in time, I might have believed that leadership is about showing how strong you are, but it’s just about showing people who you are, what you stand for and doing something that resonates with people who then trust and follow you.
In conclusion, the first salesman’s pre-existing biases clouded his ability to reason accurately and see a market opportunity where one seemed to not exist in the East Coast of Africa. The other salesman was however thoughtful enough to realize that the market in the West Coast of Africa was huge and saw the need for disruption.
The first salesman could barely understand the value he could potentially create for the society in the East Coast, the polar opposite can be said about the other salesman who was met with a similar fate but reacted very positively to the situation in the West Coast. The first salesman clearly lacked perspective and was unable to empathise with the society he was exposed to – practicing empathy and applying a bit of perspective assisted the other salesman with leaping head long into the fray to create value!
Covid19 has impacted lives financially, socially, physically and mentally. Our lives have changed but we are still expected to function as normal. Adjusting to working from home and being virtually online has with no doubt influenced our being and even sparked aspects about ourselves that we never knew even existed.
In such times of uncertainties there has never been a better time to embrace empathetic leadership!
Cultivating empathy is important in understanding that nobody has ever lived in a time like this before, people have loved ones, very close to them that they have lost.
Mental health has become an integral part of our lives.
As a leader it is important to cultivate empathy and adopt a perspective that seeks to understand that times and situations have changed.