Doing Better at Doing Good

Empathy and experience key to becoming good leader

April 29, 2012 

What do today’s leaders need to create lasting impact in the world?

At the Center for Creative Leadership, our work points to a handful of critical skills: We need strong self-awareness. We must be able to collaborate across boundaries and connect deeply within our communities. We need critical-thinking skills to develop innovative solutions to complex challenges. We also need courage to take action even in the face of stark adversity (including the crushing pressure of the status quo).

These leadership skills cannot be cultivated merely by writing them down and filing them away. Instead, they require rolling up our sleeves and getting soaked in experience. And we need to remember a critical trait that is sometimes overlooked but just as crucial: the power of empathy.

Empathy is the ability to identify and understand another’s situation, feelings, and motives. It’s about being able to appreciate alternative perspectives and building deep trusting relationships.

In other words, it’s the glue that holds us together.

This glue not only helps us become a better sibling, parent, or friend – it also allows us to lead more effectively and become a catalyst for positive change in our communities. It’s recognized as so critical for today’s leaders that Ashoka, one of the leading investors in social entrepreneurs globally, has launched the Empathy Initiative to help spread the teaching and practicing of empathy among emerging leaders.

In their book “Living Without Enemies,” Marcia Owen and Sam Wells lay out a helpful framework of service and community leadership. Drawing on Owen’s experience as head of the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham and Wells’ role as Dean of Duke University’s Chapel, they explore the importance of “being for” something (such as the broader concept of reducing violence in one’s community) and “being with” the effort and affected community as well (such as taking part in a vigil with a family who has just experienced a tragic loss).

Connecting takes effort

This empathic connection can then help us transition from “doing for” others – such as developing a set of well meaning interventions that are imposed upon a community – to “doing with” others. In the latter, change comes from within the community. For instance, a city could collectively embrace an effort to reduce gang activity through alternative community outlets such as a basketball league and employment opportunities (incidentally, a great model for this is Durham’s Campaign 4 Change started by former gang leader Otis Lyons).

Solutions developed within a community for a community are much more likely to take root and make a sustained difference. But being able to connect with a community at this level takes focused effort.

Recognizing the growing globalization of North Carolina, the Center for International Understanding was established through the leadership of Gov. Jim Hunt. Housed within the University of North Carolina, the Center focuses on expanding current and future leaders’ capacity to understand and work with the rest of the world.

A success story

Under the banner of Imaginative Leadership, one of the Center’s signature programs is the Latino Initiative. Launched in 1998 to help North Carolina leaders more deeply understand immigration and the contributions of our state’s Latino community, the Latino Initiative now has more than 700 alumni who represent some of our state’s top leadership.

The program has three phases. First, each class identifies key community issues to tackle. Next, teams travel to Mexico for an intensive immersion program within communities that many of our state’s immigrant families come from. Finally, informed by their experiences and new relationships the leaders then return to create and implement plans that drive positive community change.

Understanding the world

Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte, for example, launched a 40-foot mobile clinic to provide immunizations and primary care to previously underserved Latino families. Wake County started the Lay Health Advisors/ Promotores to work with Latino families to increase nutrition and reduce obesity.

Participants like UNC President Tom Ross call the program one of the most meaningful of their lives. A significant reason for the program’s success? Its emphasis on challenging old assumptions and introducing new perspectives and relationships that are grounded in a deep sense of empathy and connection. From these new perspectives come fresh solutions with the power to engage entire communities..

We need more opportunities to foster these types of relationships and problem solving strategies. In an interdependent, global world, our ability to create lasting positive change will come down to our ability to work together. The more we understand each other, the sooner we can solve some of our toughest challenges.

Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward, a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and the author of Life Entrepreneurs. Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is author of the forthcoming book “The Messy Quest for Meaning” and blogs at They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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