What President Clinton Taught Me About Empathy This Weekend

What President Clinton Taught Me

Some Honeybee readers will know that I’ve devoted a great deal of time over the years to empathy – trying (often in vain) to practice it, and trying to study it too. This is not so uncommon these days, even in business and finance circles, where there is more and more discussion of “EQ”  in management and leadership conversations.  However, I see a big difference between learned empathy (the kind that comes from a required course in business school) and mastered empathy (the kind that comes from years of genuine and consistent practice).  It’s like the difference between a foxtrot where you’re counting steps to yourself at your cousin’s wedding, versus watching the pros on Dancing with the Stars.  Technically it’s the same dance, but the effects are not at all similar.

This past weekend I attended the Omega Institute’s Center for Sustainable Living conference, “Where Do We Go From Here?”  See details and webcast info here.  The gathering was tremendous, featuring wisdom from Janine Benyus, Majora Carter, Jeremy Rifkin, and many others, and I will surely be writing more about their remarks in future publications.

These sustainability speakers are leaders in all sorts of endeavors, but one common theme that ran throughout the discussions was that of translation, of bridging – being able to bring different parts of communities together, being able to (sometimes literally) speak different languages.  And even beyond that basic communication, being able to recognize and understand the thoughts and needs and lives of communities outside of our own little pods.  Empathy.

This is where the President comes in.  Bill Clinton was the keynote speaker on Friday, and his remarks were memorable and far-ranging in substance, touching on everything from clean cookstoves to the ivory trade to our current governmental woes.  But the two moments that made the biggest impression on me were among the quietest.  First, I had the chance to say hello to him – obviously a very brief chance, and I must admit I was so overwhelmed that I was just grinning in silence, unable to speak.  As we shook hands, he just looked me right in the eye and said, “tell me your name”.  Suddenly un-mute, I squeaked out my name and we had a very brief exchange about Liberia, where I am engaged through board work with the amazing Last Mile Health and where President Clinton has done so much through the  Clinton Global Initiative.

I can practically see some of you eye-rolling, telling me that I am so naïve, that all politicians are masters of this sort of chit-chat.  But I have met a lot of politicians, and very rarely has anyone bothered to even look at me in a crowded greeting line, let alone say a personal word, or put me at ease.  And this leads to the second moment:  after the President’s  remarks at the podium, he was interviewed by Skip Backus, Omega’s visionary CEO.  Skip noted that this was his first interview ever – with a President!  So naturally, he was nervous.  Pres. Clinton made a small joke, but then he realized that Skip meant it – he was really nervous!  So the President told a story about his mother spending so much time with people from all different parts of their community when he was growing up, and her advice to him, “everyone has a story to tell, if you just listen”.  By the time he was done with this anecdote, everyone was relaxed and the conversation easily proceeded.  This was a Friday night, just after the CGI meetings, and it was getting pretty late.  Far lesser luminaries would have been visibly weary, or impatient, or just unaware, but here was a man who took the time to notice the state of others around him, and to help.

As for the content of President Clinton’s remarks, here are my top 3 quotes from the evening:

“You can complain, but it’s not empowering.”
“Sometimes you need to let your eyes overcome your ideology.”
“We are genetically 99.5% alike. But we spend 99.5% of our time focused on that 0.5% that is different.”

Say what you will about politics, or politicians, or even this particular politician.  For my part, I will take these moments as a lesson in gracious power, and recognized common humanity – a combination that seems all too rare.

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