Discovering Empathy in Courageous Conversations

In times of shared distress, empathy is sorely needed yet sometimes feels lacking. With the social isolation of the past 6 months, it is easy for leaders to become disconnected with the needs of customers, partners, and those working on the frontlines of the organization. Now more than ever, leaders need to be having conversations throughout their organizations to understand the challenges we all face, share the grief of change, and channel that sentiment into the organizational mission.

I was reminded of empathy’s importance during a recent conversation with Doug Parker, CEO of American Airlines. Doug visited the Owen School to kick off the year. Sitting in our library with masks, we held a virtual fireside chat, discussing the racial and economic challenges facing our country. Living through the deep economic challenges airlines face today, Doug remembered challenges posed by 9/11 and the Great Recession. During those times, conversations with flight crews kept him focused on keeping the company together and protecting employees. This summer is similar in some ways but also very different. Tensions stemming from longstanding racial injustice have been accentuated by the public health and economic crises—situations that demand more of a leader’s attention and empathy.

Doug recounted a chance conversation he had about race earlier this summer with a Black flight attendant—one that he credits to her. They chatted about a book Doug had with him on the plane entitled White Fragility (R. DiAngelo), a book about, ironically, overcoming the fear of conversations about race. Riding on Southwest Airlines for personal travel that day, Doug was not looking for a conversation with a competitor’s employee on any topic, much less one about race. But when the flight attendant plopped down in the seat across from him and pointed to the book, Doug quickly realized an uncomfortable conversation was coming. In her book, DiAngelo says that “White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.” Rolling past the discomfort of the initial encounter, the two quickly realized that they were both trying to learn how to discuss the racial pain that surrounds us. That shared experience turned out to be meaningful to both of them (see more on this story in USA Today). It also became part of Doug’s rationale to redouble his commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) at American.

We concluded that our organizations face many of the same issues. The Owen School is 50 years old. Our beginnings were intentionally diverse; it was a commitment from our very first dean. Our first class included women, Black Americans, and international students—something that was not true of all other peer schools at the time. But that does not mean that we have not faced challenges. We have spent a lot of time working on equity, diversity, and inclusion in the past 10 years and, admittedly, we have a lot of work to do. We constantly strive to be a stronger academic institution; we cannot do that without intentional efforts towards advancing EDI.

This summer, we read How to be an Antiracist (I. Kendi) as a community. The book inspired conversations that have ranged from reducing bias in our everyday lives to why and how leaders in every organization should look for proactive ways to break systemic racism. Whatever our focus, the need for empathy and a willingness to listen were understood.

I left my conversation with Doug Parker reflecting on 3 things that he shared:

  • First, prepare for courageous conversations and be ready for dialog in a range of situations. You never know when you can have an impactful conversation.
  • Second, understand that adversity reveals and defines character. Business leaders have to make tough decisions, especially in times of crisis, and it is critical to make those decisions ethically and with empathy.
  • Finally, treat everyone you meet with respect; employees, co-workers, customers, and even your competition—a timeless lesson for us all.

To hear more from my interview with Doug Parker (CEO, American Airlines), watch the video. Parker discusses his journey on EDI and the challenges of managing through a crisis.

Leadership Notes is a blog and video series on leadership.  Through interviews with leaders from both the private and public sector, Johnson examines key leadership issues like empowerment, team development, and cultural dexterity.  The blog also addresses topics such as learning from failure, the importance of friendship, and the role leaders play in developing organizational culture.

You can access the entire library of entries on LinkedIn.

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