Finding meaning in the midst of hardship

  • Published
  • By Colonel John E. Michel
  • 319th Air Refueling Wing commander

Viktor Frankl was an incredible person by many measures. He was a brilliant academic, a survivor of three years in four different concentration camps during the Holocaust, a pioneering neurologist/psychiatrist in Vienna following World War II, and an inspirational author. Most notable, however, is that his finest moments came when leadership was thrust upon him in the bleakest of times.

Despite enduring the atrocities of four Nazi concentration camps, the most infamous being Auschwitz, and losing his wife and parents to them, Frankl managed to find what few others could during such a dark period in our world's history: a purpose for living. He used his experience as a psychiatrist to treat fellow prisoners, run a clinic, and even lecture on various topics - maintaining his own mental and spiritual health by looking for every opportunity to serve the needs of others.

After the war, Frankl levied his varied trials, tribulations, and professional experiences into a series of books that continue to be counted among the most influential of our time. In fact, his writings are largely regarded as masterpieces for their ability to paint images of seemingly average individuals, whose empathy for the plight of others challenges each of us to re-think our notions of what constitutes an extraordinary person.

But perhaps the most significant aspect of Frankl's transformation from successful professional and family man, to witness to countless tragedies, to purposeful leader, occurred as a result of what he saw transpiring in the daily events of the Nazi death camps. Events which, over time, taught him firsthand how one of the most important things a leader can do for those in their care is to learn to see events through their eyes or walk a mile in their shoes.

Finding Meaning through Service
In his inspirational memoir, Man's Search for Meaning, Frankl recounts how over time he became transfixed at the sight of others willfully setting aside their own hardships in order to reach out in service to those who needed their help the most.

In one account, he recalls a particularly cold morning when he and other prisoners were forced to stumble in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The guards were shouting at the prisoners, driving them forward with the butts of their rifles. The only way some of these prisoners were able to make it was by supporting themselves on their neighbor's arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. But the prisoners' concern for one another was readily expressed in their selfless actions and provided the physical and emotional strength necessary to overcome the cruelty they collectively faced.

Little by little, in the midst of one of our world's darkest moments, Frankl discovered the transformative ability of selflessness to overpower selfishness. A discovery that even today serves to remind those of us wanting to grow into Second-Mile leaders how developing a great sense of caring for all people, foes as well as friends alike, requires we learn to routinely look beyond ourselves by making empathy an indispensable part of our lives. 

Empathy: Choosing to See Beyond Ourselves
In his international bestseller The Courageous Follower, Ira Chaleff says that as leaders, "we can model any characteristic we possess or develop, but the most important one to model may be empathy."

In simplest terms, empathy is the ability to put oneself in another's shoes. Or, in the words of psychiatrist Alfred Adler, empathy is "to see with the eyes of another, to hear with the ears of another, and to feel with the heart of another." Unlike sympathy, where you choose to remain an outsider content on viewing the situation from a distance, empathy actively involves the observer. There is an intentional emotional connection made with the other person as you make the choice to better understand what they are seeing, feeling or experiencing.

But why does the importance of empathy still seem so hard to accept? Is it a practice that is only well suited for our worship spaces but inappropriate for our workplaces?

Sadly, I believe that this remains a common misconception.

Admittedly, empathy seems to have little place in the traditional top-down model of leadership. To many, choosing to see events through another's eyes or walk a mile in their shoes smacks of weakness.

It sounds soft and mushy and doesn't resonate well with the vigorous phrases we oft associate with leadership.

Words such as vision and daring, conviction and courage, assertiveness and integrity, naturally come to mind. Empathy doesn't often make the leadership cut. But empathy, seeing with the eyes of another, hearing with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another, demonstrates our capacity and willingness to project ourselves into the position of another.

Truth is, empathy, being open to understanding the perspectives, emotions, thoughts, concerns, and motives of others is not about embracing blind agreement in order to please those around you. Rather, it's about being open to better understanding others and working to gain an increased appreciation for their circumstances.

Empathy: Cornerstone of Other-Centric Leadership
Leaders who understand the appropriate and powerful role empathy can play in their lives believe successful leadership starts with the ability to "put oneself in the other person's shoes." This translates into a genuine willingness to communicate to others that they are heard, understood and cared for. And, once people feel heard understood and cared for, trust and commitment can flourish.
With trust enabled, an empathetic leader is better able to act decisively and fairly with others. Enforcing high levels of personal accountability and inspiring heightened levels of performance from everyone in the organization, they genuinely seek the best for those in their care--choosing to suspend judgments when others are sharing their perspectives or feelings so they can hear what is being communicated.
This ability to actively listen to others may well be the most powerful tool available to leaders to express empathy. Learning to quiet oneself long enough to consciously think about what others are saying can reveal a great deal about a person's motives, experiences, and feelings. This, in turn, enables a leader to better recognize each individual's unique strength and contributions to the team.
And last, but definitely not least, practicing empathy enables selfless leaders to learn the value of suspending their own ideals, values, judgments, biases, and assumptions long enough to gain a greater appreciation for the value found in the perspectives of others. A practice which, when properly employed, improves every situation and person it touches.
Enabling those of us committed to becoming empathetic leaders ourselves to effectively see with the eyes of another, to hear with the ears of another, and to feel with the heart of another so we can make positive difference in the lives of those entrusted to our care. 

Recognizing Everyone Has Value
As I prepare to wrap-up this week's article, let me share a brief, true story from a 1996 edition of Guideposts that summarizes the importance of empathy in our lives:

"During my second month of nursing school, our professor gave us a pop quiz. I was a conscientious student and breezed through the questions, until I read the last one: 'What is the first name of the woman who cleans the school?'"

Surely, this was some kind of joke. I had seen the cleaning woman several times. She was tall, dark-haired, and in her fifties, but how would I know her name? I handed in my paper, leaving the last question blank.

Before the class ended, one student asked if the last question would count toward the quiz grade. 'Absolutely,' said the professor. 'In your careers you will meet many people. All are significant. They deserve your attention and care.'"

I've never forgotten that lesson. I also learned her name was Dorothy.

As Victor Frankl teaches us from his time in the concentration camps, and our story above reminds us, becoming an effective leader demands you willfully promote empathy for others instead of allowing arrogance, denial, or despair to block your capacity for caring.

Only then will you be able to create bonds of mutual trust that enable you to forge positive, meaningful connections. Connections that ultimately help you to be generous with others when you don't have to be; show kindness and act with compassion when it's not easy; and, to give freely of yourself for the benefit of another when going the first-mile is all others expect to see.

Not because you have to, but because you choose to.

Simply because that's what Second-Mile leaders do!