Graduates, Parents, Teachers, and Friends: Greetings and Good Evening!
Recently I had the privilege of studying with our very fine graduating students the subject of ethics. During that study, we identified 5 analytical tools for ethical decision-making—
1. the Golden Rule, to do unto others as you would have others do unto you;
2. the Aristotelian approach, drawing upon experience to decide what the most reasonable action would be by considering what a wise judge would deem the most prudent;
3. deontological ethics, where one always follows a binding rule or law, such as the principle to always be honest;
4. utilitarianism, wherein we seek to determine which course will produce the greatest satisfaction for all involved; and
5. “justice as fairness”—judging what is the most fair course for all concerned, making the decision as if you had no knowledge of which party you would be in the transaction.
Our students then applied these guidelines to a series of ethical dilemmas, and conducted what I thought were very thoughtful analyses. But as valuable as these tools may be, I fear they might be missing a key element.
Last fall Board Chair Diane Wilcox and I attended a session on decision-making led by NAIS President Pat Bassett. Pat told a story about his leadership team at NAIS- a group of about a dozen executives who had many tough decisions to make, and found that as seemingly well-reasoned their decisions were, the team struggled to execute them effectively in a way that didn’t negatively impact morale in the organization. He and his team then underwent a personality profile analysis, and discovered that on the personality axis known as thinking vs. feeling, (gauged by determining which do you primarily make your decisions), every member of the leadership team came out as T’s—they were thinkers, not feelers. Eureka, Pat said—now he recognized the flaw in their decision-making process.
Graduates— already your interactions with others are complex and sometimes challenging, and your dilemmas will only become more difficult in the future. You will bring to those decisions your very powerful intellects—you are a fast-thinking, brilliant bunch. But I ask you to ask yourself—will those thinking skills be enough? As much as I want to ask and encourage you to use the tools we learned this spring in Leadership class, it is essential too that you not just THINK through your best options, but also seek to “FEEL” what will be the results of your actions.
We often call this skill empathy—empathy is, to quote, “the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s position and to intuit what that person is feeling—to stand in their shoes, to see with their eyes, to feel with their hearts—it is a stunning act of imaginative derring-do, the ultimate virtual reality, climbing into another’s mind to experience the world from that person’s perspective.”
That quote comes from Dan Pink—a new favorite author of mine, due to his book A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age. In the book, Pink advises us that in the new 21st century global economy, where the World is Flat, we have to revise our understanding of what is required for success. It is not that traditional intellectual abilities are unimportant—indeed, they continue to be essential. Essential, but not enough—they must be enhanced by creativity and compassion. “Today,” Pink writes, “widespread online access, combined with all those overseas knowledge workers, are making the attributes measurable by IQ much easier to replace, but the one aptitude that’s proven impossible for computers to reproduce, and very difficult for faraway workers connected by electrons to match, is Empathy.” At Stanford Business School, the most popular course is not accounting or marketing, but “Interpersonal Dynamics”—and, he writes, the most successful lawyers of the future will be those “who can empathize with their clients and understand their true needs, or can sit in a negotiation and figure out the subtext of the discussion that’s coursing beneath the explicit words.”
Imaginative empathy forms the basis of greatness in literature—where you are brought to inhabit the minds of many diverse characters. Allow me to quote author Ian McEwan, in an interview he gave after the publication of Saturday, a book which grapples with the legacy of 9/11—“Imagining yourself into the minds of other people is a fundamental human act of empathy, which lies at the base of all our moral understanding. I really don’t believe for a moment that our moral sense comes from a God. … It’s human, universal, [it’s] being able to think our way into the minds of others. What those holy fools, [the terrorists] clearly lacked was the ability to enter into the minds of the people they were being so cruel to. Amongst their crimes was a failure of the moral imagination. You cannot be cruel to someone if you fully understand what it is to be them.”
Toni Morrison’s fiction also exemplifies empathy—nowhere more so than in the searing and heartbreaking novel Beloved, in which she takes us inside the mind of someone we might think we could never understand, a mother who kills her children, and in doing so brings us to a new level of empathy for others who would seem unknowable.
The Ancient Greeks knew all too well how easy it was to be caught up and restricted by our own egos and intellects, and their wisdom recognized the elusive but essential value of empathy. The highlight of Homer’s Iliad comes very near the end of that long epic—Achilles, despite having avenged his beloved Patroclos by slaying Hector, and despite having gloried in that triumph in the “funeral games”—still is sleepless and miserable in his mourning. Achilles has always only been a man of action, not a man of empathy. Until—until he is visited by Hector’s father, Trojan King Priam. “‘Achilles,’ ” Priam says, “ ‘remember your father, one who is of years like mine… Achilles, take pity upon me by remembering your father.’ So he spoke and stirred in Achilles a passion of grieving. He took the old man’s hand, and the two remembered, as Priam sat huddled and wept for Hector, and Achilles wept now for his own father, and now again for Patroclus.” And now, only now, that Achilles has been able to truly empathize with another, is he able to surmount his grief—as Homer sings, “Then, when great Achilles had taken full satisfaction in sorrow and the passion for it had gone from his mind and body, he rose from his chair and took the old man by his hand and set him on his feet again, in pity for the grey head and grey hair.” Only now, only here, does Achilles become truly human and truly a hero.
Daring now to venture into contemporary political waters, and please forgive me, but I cannot help but wonder whether our current Middle East travails might represent a failure not of intellect but of empathy—President Bush had some outstanding minds advising him on the invasion of Iraq, and they predicted, famously, that we would be welcomed there as liberators. To me, it makes perfect sense that they would have thought that—Saddam was truly an evil dictator, and without any doubt most Iraqis wanted him gone; that said, did those analysts truly try to feel what Iraqis might feel when our armies arrived in their country as armed occupiers? I do not mean to be passing judgment upon the administration, but I think it is an important question to ask about the decisionmaking process that brought us to Iraq.
Now none of this is easy—truly empathetic decision-making is hard to do, and I do not consider myself especially proficient. NAIS President Basset explained in his training a decision-making procedure he called a Z-analysis. To do so, you must draw upon and reconcile both your sensing and your intuiting, both your thinking and your feeling. Determine first the facts of the situation at hand, then seek to intuit or discern what might be the pattern underlying the facts. Having done so, move back over to your thinking mode to decide the logical way to address your problem, but don’t stop there—stopping there would be a “7 analysis.” Carry on, back to the other side of your now expanded analysis, and consider carefully how people will feel as a result of your logical decision, and how can you deliver the information or implement the decision in a way that makes people feel best about it.
What is most fun about Dan Pink’s Whole New Mind book is that he doesn’t just tell you what skills to develop, he gives a set of techniques for how to develop them. For empathy, his suggestions include taking an acting class, volunteering with people whose experiences are far different from your own, or learning how to “mind-read,” using a CD from Cambridge University scientists originally intended for autistic persons to better “read” emotional cues, but which has become increasingly popular with actors, illustrators, and others who want keener insight into emotional interpretation. To Pink’s list I would add—read great fiction, read Ian McEwan, read Toni Morrison.
Graduates, it might seem that I am urging you develop and practice Empathy as an act of charity—so you can better understand and offer compassion to others, perhaps to others less fortunate. But please don’t misunderstand me—I am urging you attend to the development of your empathy for your own growth and success. Our ethics studies this spring considered helpful thinking tools for your future challenges, but to become more fully human like Achilles, and to become more fully moral in the way McEwan urges, you must learn to “imagine yourself into the minds of others.” By doing so, you will be a better decision maker, a better leader, you will be more truly ethical, and you will accomplish that much in whatever it is you set out to do.
Thank you—and Congratulations, Graduates of 2007.