James Whitfield

James Whitfield

Leading with empathy in 2018 | Guest Column

Leadership Eastside CEO offers reflections, action steps for community.

  • Monday, January 1, 2018 9:30am
  • Opinion

By James Whitfield

Special to the Reporter

As president and CEO of Leadership Eastside, I have an obligation to pay attention to leaders and leadership affecting our region. As we wrap 2017, I offer some reflections and action steps for consideration by our community.

We must start with the combative tone infusing much of the discourse internationally, nationally, and yes, locally. Undoubtably, readers will find some of the combat justified, in response to sincerely-felt injustices. However, for leaders to play upon — or worse yet, prey upon — people’s sense of insecurity is short-sighted and lamentable.

Sociologists tell us humans’ flight or fight instinct narrows our perspective, repelling us from potential threats and drawing us toward signs of safety. In times of social turbulence, it’s easy to see how this instinct can override people’s more collaborative inclinations. “Under threat,” the thinking goes, “we must help ourselves before trying to help others.”

This year is characterized by leaders declaring judgment about a symbol important to “Us,” then expecting others to demonstrate fidelity by following suit. Anyone expressing divergent thought or compassion for “Them” then gets framed as a threat to the cultural tribe. Check your social media feeds to see this in action. Some of the greatest vitriol of 2017 has been reserved for people who otherwise were “with us.”

There is a different human impulse that must be nurtured to overcome this ever-constricting cycle. It is empathy – the ability, and willingness – to share the experience of others.

As we navigate the perceived and real threats we face, it is this aspect of our humanity that allows us to recognize that the same threats are affecting others. In fact, these shared threats may be the only thing we believe we have in common, but empathy says, that’s plenty.

There is an old joke told about two people on a hike who happen upon a bear. One drops to a knee. “What are you doing,” the other asks. “Tightening my laces so I can run better,” is the reply. “Well, I don’t think we can outrun a bear,” explains the first. “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you,” the second yells, running away.

At this moment, too many of our leaders are encouraging us to run away and save ourselves. But that’s not why people banded together in tribes in the first place. It was to work together, to engage our empathy and create communities to ensure our ability to overcome, come what may.

This upcoming year, I invite you to evaluate what our leaders are triggering. And be open to your friends and family expressing differences of perspective. You could turn away and leave them to face the bear without you. But if we want 2018 to be different than 2017, we must lock arms, and face our threats together.

I can’t guarantee we’ll always be successful. But I can promise you’ll never end up in a situation where you will have to face your bears alone.

Happy New Year.

James Whitfield is the president and CEO of Leadership Eastside.

More in Opinion

An apocalypse or a beginning of anew? | My Perspective

As one year is behind us and another has begun, it is… Continue reading

For opponents of a carbon tax, an initiative threat looms

If legislators don’t act on the governor’s legislation, a plan could land on the November ballot.

Inslee: ‘It’s our state’s destiny … to fight climate change’

In his State-of-the-State address, the governor made the case for an ambitious carbon tax.

KCLS unveils its Best Books of 2017

And the envelope, please. Continuing an end-of-year tradition that dates back more… Continue reading

The meaning of Thanksgiving | My Perception

Could Thanksgiving have symbolism greater than that of a turkey on a… Continue reading

Reporter editor Carrie Rodriguez and her son, Jeremiah, during his graduation from Navy boot camp in June at Great Lakes, Illinois. Carrie Rodriguez/staff photo
To my sea sisters — and all families of veterans | Editor’s Note

As my Navy recruiter waited in his car with the engine running… Continue reading

To my sea sisters — and all families of veterans | Editor’s Note

As my Navy recruiter waited in his car with the engine running… Continue reading

Initial returns point to a power shift in the state Senate | The Petri Dish

Democrats went to bed Tuesday night confidently declaring their party will control… Continue reading

Drowsy driving is a national health and safety problem | Guest column

Eleven years ago, a drowsy-driving car wreck left me with injuries that… Continue reading

A cradle of Democracy | Book Nook

On Nov. 3, 1942, a shared vision of democratic ideals and equal… Continue reading

Reporter endorsements for Issaquah City Council seats | Editorial

Issaquah Mayor: Mary Lou Pauly The Issaquah City Council needs a strong… Continue reading

Reporter endorsements for Sammamish City Council seats | Editorial

Sammamish Position 1: Mark Baughman With four open seats, the Sammamish City… Continue reading