“The last of the human freedoms is to choose one’s attitudes.”
This Article Has Been Reposted in conjunction with
Days of Remembrance (Holocaust Remembrance Day)
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 meaningful purpose for living. Instead of allowing the despairing conditions he found himself in to overwhelm or engulf him, Frankl choose to transform his present circumstances into an opportunity to grow in ways he didn’t think possible. How? By resisting the tendency to turn inward and focus only on his challenges by willfully orienting outward and discovering what he could do to help lighten the load, life the spirits and selflessly serve those around him.
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 or a truly successful leader.
If you are interested in improving your ability to lead yourself and others more effectively, let me share three vital lessons from Frankl’s life experience that can help you.
Finding Meaning through Service
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Frankl’s personal transformation from successful professional and beloved family man, 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 another’s eyes or walk a mile in their shoes.
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. It was a discovery that even today serves to remind those of us wanting to become better 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.
“…developing a great sense of caring requires we [make] empathy an indispensable part of our lives.”
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 homes or 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. Perhaps because 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 often 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.
Recognizing Everyone Has Value
One of my favorite examples of the importance of learning to appreciate the innate value and worth of every person we encounter comes from a true story from a 1996 edition of Guideposts. To this day it is a piece I reread periodically to remind me of the importance of practicing 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 this simple but powerful example affirms, empathy empowers you to build and develop genuine appreciation for those around you; enables you to gain a greater awareness of the needs of those around you; and encourages you to create an environment of open communication and more effective feedback so others feel safe enough to be who they really are around you. All of which, mind you, are essential if you want to create conditions for trust, transparency, collaboration and mutual appreciation to flourish around you.
Victor Frankl time in the concentration camps teaches us that no matter how daunting our circumstances, situations or surroundings, when you choose to be generous with others when we don’t have to be; show kindness and act with compassion with others when it’s not easy; and give freely of ourselves for the benefit of another when doing the minimum is all others expect to see, nothing becomes impossible. Then perhaps you too will discover what Frankl truly meant when he wrote “we who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances – to choose one’s own way.”
How are you choosing, today?