Whenever I give a closing argument to a jury, I include comments about the importance of empathy. I tell the jurors that while the law does not permit them to have sympathy for my client, it does permit them to have empathy.
A person who has empathy toward another person is able to develop a deeper understanding of what the other person is going through, by mentally putting himself or herself in the place of that person.
We often hear about how important it is to step into the shoes of another person so that we can understand what that person is going through. That’s what empathy is.
Empathy is different from sympathy. The definition of sympathy is “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.” Feeling sorry for someone is different from understanding what the person is going through by mentally putting yourself in the place of that person.
The opposite of empathy is callousness and cruelty. Can a person who is generally empathetic turn into a person who is callous and cruel? The answer is yes. It happens all the time.
There is the equivalent of a “switch” that is inside each of us that immediately turns off our ability to have empathy for another person. That switch is triggered when we become angry with that person.
During the time that we are angry, we are not able to mentally put ourselves in the place of the person we are angry with. Without the filter of empathy available for us to utilize, our thoughts, words, and actions can become callous and cruel.
Whenever I become angry with someone, I have to mentally remind myself that if I allow myself to remain angry, I will do and say things that can hurt the other person and cause grave harm to our relationship. If I don’t release my anger by practicing the virtues of humility, kindness, and forgiveness, I will not be able to understand where the other person is coming from.
You may have heard of Simon Sinek. He’s a British/American author, speaker, and marketing consultant. Sinek is an expert on leadership. His first book, Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, was written in 2009 and turned out to be a bestseller.
Sinek’s second book, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, was published in 2014. The title of the book comes from what Sinek learned during a conversation with Lt. Gen. George Flynn.
During their conversation, Flynn shared some reasons why members of the Marine Corps are so tight-knit and trusting of each other. He told Sinek that when the Marines line up to eat, the most junior Marines eat first. Next in line are the Marines that rank immediately above the junior Marines. The rest of the Marines eat in order of rank with the highest-ranking Marines — the leaders — eating last.
The reason that the Marines do this is because they believe that true leaders are always willing to place others’ needs above their own.
The protocol that the Marines follow by placing their leaders last in line at mealtime is the opposite of how most organizations and businesses operate. Most people in leadership positions believe that leadership is about status, power, and privilege. The Marines take the opposite approach. As a result, they learn to trust each other with their very lives.
In Leaders Eat Last, Sinek attributed the behavior of the Marine leaders to their use of empathy to govern the way they treat their subordinates. According to his book, Sinek’s contention is that exceptional leaders “prioritize the well-being of their people and, in return, their people give everything they’ve got to protect and advance the well-being of one another and the organization.”
“You can absolutely have success when leaders eat first,” Sinek states in his book. “But that success is going to be short-term and less able to weather hard times. In hard times people will not rush to the aid of a leader if they’ve never felt that he or she had put their interests first. You can get a lion to do what you want it to do by whipping it, but at some point, it’s going to come back and bite you.”
I don’t know if Sinek realizes this, but what he discovered during his conversation with General Flynn was that the leaders who have the greatest success in growing and nurturing their organizations are imitating the leadership qualities and skills of Jesus Christ. Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II had those leadership qualities and skills.
What did Jesus do as a leader? We’re reminded of what he did every year during Holy Week. Even though He was the Son of God, He insisted on putting His apostles first by washing their dirty feet.
When the mother of James and John asked if her two sons could sit next to Jesus in His kingdom, He responded, “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:20-26)
So the greatest leader the world has ever seen practiced what he preached. He became a servant to his followers so they could be saved. He put himself in their shoes and understood that their deepest desire was salvation.
He knew that the only way they could ever be saved was for Him to surrender Himself to men who would murder him.
That’s what Holy Week and Easter Sunday are all about.