Empathy and curiosity are two of the most valuable and relevant leadership traits today. When used intentionally, empathy and curiosity build trust and connection with others that is essential to successful business outcomes. Think about it: empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person; and curiosity, the strong desire to learn or know something (or someone) – when combined, you become incessantly interested in the lives and well-being of other people on purpose.
Incessantly. Interested. In other people. On purpose.
I know when someone is incessantly interested in me and my life on purpose it makes me feel good. And when I feel good, I'm more creative. When I'm more creative, I do better work. When I do better work, the team and the company benefit. When the company benefits, clients and partners and customers benefit. No doubt, you see the chain reaction that empathy and curiosity put into motion, yes?
Many of us, however, aren't naturally empathetic or curious. Our empathy is often compartmentalized for only certain relationships. And our curiosity is limited to business or project related contexts – how to fix something or solve a problem. Why aren't we curious in the same way with people? Why do we do limit ourselves like this? Why can't we be empathetic and curious with all people all the time?
Why can't we be empathetic and curious with all people all the time?
I think the reason is that we don't know how. We're afraid to be vulnerable. We may not have the courage to reveal the full nature of who we are because we're worried that we will be attacked or mocked or teased for being weak or ineffective. We're often terrified of showing compassion and love and sensitivity and kindness regularly because that would require that we establish a new norm of radical authenticity. And for many, that unknown territory can be scary.
We're habituated to be distant, guarded, ‘professional’ because we think it's safer, more decorous, more respectable. We think that's what people think we want. And it's 100% wrong. Because, really, we're crying out for connection, for acceptance, for authenticity – for belonging! We know that we want to belong, and we know that others want to belong. We just don't know how to get there. And, importantly, we're usually not willing to do the work to get there.
Because, you see, to be good at showing empathy and being curious, just like any other skills – coding, say, or plumbing or brain surgery or carpentry – we have to practice to get good. We have to habituate ourselves to it; to normalize these traits; we must choose to intentionally and consciously shift our mindset to a new way of being in the world. And choose to understand and embody the idea that empathy and curiosity do not replace traditional business values like productivity and efficiency and innovation; they elevate them.
Sure, we can (and should) participate in empathy training. Yes, we should establish new ways of communicating with each other, and adopt new language that is more inclusive and inviting. And, we should absolutely have official guidelines and policies for how we are expected to treat each other. Of course, we should build and sustain a true culture of belonging where everyone can thrive.
Empathy and curiosity do not replace traditional business values like productivity and efficiency and innovation; they elevate them.
But all that will never ever in a million years be enough if each of us not willing to do our own independent, silent, unsexy, invisible work. The number one way to do this work is to read! Read books by and about people who are not like you. Read books about topics that have nothing to do with your job or your career. Read books about topics that you know little about. Read novels, memoirs, history, social commentary. Read books by people who have different political beliefs than you do. Read books by established writers and writers you've never heard of. Read books that were written hundreds of years ago and ones that were written last month. Read books that challenge your norms, and that invite you to consider new perspectives. Read books that make you feel uncomfortable, that force you to grow, that challenge your biases, that dare you to change. Read books that you don't understand. Read books that you're sure you won't like and then find something valuable and relevant in them.
To be candid, it doesn't matter which books you read – as long as you read often and your reading is varied. What you'll find is that, in a process not to dissimilar to osmosis, all the reading you do will seep into your being and you will become an evolved, worldly, dynamic, mature, more authentic version of who you already are. You may not even notice it immediately, and you may not always be able to point to certain books and say, "I learned this from that book," and you may wonder if anything's really changed, and you may not be able to quantify your evolution of consciousness.
In a process not to dissimilar to osmosis, all the reading you do will seep into your being and you will become a more evolved, dynamic, mature, more authentic version of who you already are.
But others will notice. They'll notice that you have different kinds of conversations with them. They'll notice that you listen more, that you're more respectful, that you give more space, that you're kinder, gentler, more inclusive. They'll notice. . . wait for it. . . that you're more empathetic to their needs, that you seem to understand them and their particular contexts and situations more fully. They'll notice that you're curious about their lives. They'll notice that you care, that you appreciate the complexities of the human condition, and that work is never just about work.
People will notice. And it will matter. It will fundamentally change the way you interact with your colleagues, your direct reports, your supervisors, your family, your friends, your clients, your customers, the barista a Starbucks, the flight attendant, the guy who cut you off on the freeway – in short, everyone.
And, you will notice. You will notice your change. It will be gradual, it will seem small, and you won't always be able to cite your sources and inspiration, but it doesn't matter. The more you read, the more you will want to read. The more curious you get, the more curious you will get. The more you read, the more your empathy switch will switch on and stay switched on, not reserved only for certain people, or types of people, or certain situations and contexts, but all the time. It will become your new norm.
When you watch the news, talk politics, network, lead work meetings, give performance reviews, help your kids with their homework, volunteer in the community – engage with other human beings in any capacity – you will be more empathetic. You will constantly be reminded of books and characters and ideologies and plot lines and diverse perspectives and different lived realities, and you will apply – sometimes knowingly, but most of the time unknowingly – those experiences from books into your real life, into real world experiences with other people.
Don't use the excuse that you don't have time to read. You do. Make the time. Prioritize it. Set a goal. Maybe it starts with one book a month. Then two. Then one a week. Then 100 a year. I invite you to do this – for your own benefit and for the benefit of others. I challenge you. I urge you. Read whatever you want. It's your choice. But read. I need you to. Your colleagues need you to. Your company needs you to. The world needs you to. It's imperative.
To help you on this journey of reading more, here is a random selection of books not about leadership that have made me a more empathetic, curious, and inclusive leader - followed by one line about what I took away from the book:
- The Five Levels of Attachment by Don Miguel Ruiz Jr. – The more attached we are to our ideas and opinions the more we move away from our authentic self.
- The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates – Ta-Nehisi, a black man, grew up in the crack-riddled streets of inner-city Baltimore in the 1970s and 80s; I grew up in the flowery white suburbs of San Diego at the same time; the parallels between our lives are remarkable.
- And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts – I can't help but wonder if my dad would be alive today if politics, egos, patriotism, and governmental bureaucracies had not gotten in the way of addressing the AIDS epidemic with more urgency.
- The Story of My Experiments with Truth by Mohandes K. Gandhi – With his emphases on nonviolence and civil disobedience, Gandhi is perhaps the most influential person on my thinking and world outlook to this day.
- The House On Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros – In only 110 short pages, Sandra Cisneros paints the most beautiful, nuanced, eloquent, tragic picture of the hope and despair of growing up poor and Hispanic in the United States.
- Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Tatum – My norm is not the norm; other people have different lived experiences than me, and they're all valid.
- Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins – When personal power is backed by institutional power a lot of innocent and powerless people get screwed.
- Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn – Our presence is the greatest gift we can give ourselves and others.
- White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo – The inability of white people to have conversations about racism and their unwillingness to validate the lived realities of people of color are the major detriments to racial equity.
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – The differences between an African-American and an American-African are vast.
- The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan – Although written almost 60 years ago about this unnamable feeling that there was more for women to experience in the world, sadly, many of the same patriarchal, sexist conditions exist today.
- Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper – Black women have a right to be pissed off, so instead of making that the issue, we would do well to actually listen to what they're saying, and maybe we would understand why they're mad in the first place.
- I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street by Matt Taibbi – Police officers in cities and towns across America treat black men and women like criminals: guilty, often without the chance to be proven innocent.
- Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins by Annette Simmons – Stories matter, so we might as well learn how to tell them powerfully.
- Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest by Hanif Abdurraqib – Music matters, and it impacts and influences our thoughts and behaviors on a daily basis.
- The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater – The power to forgive can be a transformational force for healing and love.
- Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chodron – We have the ability to interrupt our thought patterns and live a narrative that is more authentic to who we really are.
- White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson – From before slavery to the present day, it is white – not black – rage that has been instrumental in maintaining the status quo of racial inequity and marginalization.
- Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir – No book has done more to help me understand the value of living with an abundant mindset.
- Animal Farm by George Orwell – Power corrupts.
- Black Boy by Richard Wright – What it's like to grow up black in the American South in the early to mid twentieth century, I'll never know; but reading this book will get me about as close as I can get.
- Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin – A fictional account of life in San Francisco in the 1970s, with all its beautiful and complex diversity, that is the most real depiction of San Francisco I may have ever read.
- Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki – Opening line: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." Nuff said.
- Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend by Michael Dregni – An outcast of European society emerges as one of the most influential musicians of all time; empowering, inspirational, beautiful story.
- The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz – When we take things personally, make assumptions, and are loose with our speech, we limit our abilities to make genuine connections with other people.
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