Singer/songwriter John Prine was 23 years old and working as a mailman when he wrote that song in 1971. The lyrics reflect an astute sense of empathy for senior citizens by such a young man with his whole life ahead of him.
I’ve been thinking a lot about John Prine and his life’s story lately. As you probably know, Prine recently passed away from complications caused by COVID-19.
As I revisited that song when his death was announced, I realized what a perfect inspiration it is for our world right now in this pandemic.
When this pandemic is finally behind us, perhaps the most admirable and memorable human trait from the ordeal will be our collective sense of empathy, defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
According to studies carried out by Development Dimensions International (DDI), empathy is the biggest single business leadership skill needed today. Richard S. Wellins, senior vice president of DDI, said, “Being able to listen and respond with empathy is overwhelmingly the one interaction skill that outshines all other skills.”
Many companies believe that empathy is so important that they send managers to “empathy training.” According to the Wall Street Journal, 20 percent of employers now offer empathy training, which is up substantially from 10 years ago.
Noted presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote in her book Leadership in Turbulent Times that empathy is one of the most important qualities of a leader.
“In February, I had the opportunity to have dinner with and sat next to Doris Kearns Goodwin. She was awesome,” said Ted Balistreri, owner of Sendik’s Food Market, which operates 17 supermarkets and four convenience stores in the Milwaukee area.
“Empathy is the basis for the mission of our organization. Our goals revolve around how we make people feel. Empathy is what guides us, what motivates us, what inspires us to become better people. With empathy, an organization becomes stronger. When leaders are able to accept and understand the emotions of others, they make the best long term decisions,” Balistreri said.
“Empathy is like the front wheel of a bike. It helps leaders, especially in times of crisis, survey the landscape, taking into consideration all viewpoints and finding the proper course,” Balistreri said.
“Without empathy, decisions are made in a vacuum and values may be overlooked. Without empathy, there is no trust, the ride gets bumpy and the path becomes uncertain, leaving the rider unstable and vulnerable,” Balistreri said.
We need all of the empathy we can find as we make our way forward to the other side of this global tragedy.
As an aside, if you know of an elderly family member, friend or neighbor who is shut off from the rest of the world, do them – and yourself – a favor today. Check on them from a safe distance if you can. Give them a phone call if you can. Send them a card or a gift.
Steve Jagler is the director of executive communications at Kane Communications Group.
Empathy is what guides us, what motivates us, what inspires us to become better people. With empathy, an organization becomes stronger.