Empathy: we need it now more than ever

In her latest book, “Leadership in Turbulent Times,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin focuses on four presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. All were intelligent, with great oratory and writing gifts; focused; persistent; energetic and greatly skilled in dealing with people from all sectors of society. To be sure, each great leader possessed enormous empathy.

Empathy, defined by Webster, is the ability to identify and understand another’s situation, feelings and motives. Basically, empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s place. Sadly this all-important trait in dealing successfully with people seems to be sorely lacking today.


But back to these four amazing presidents: Lincoln was born dirt-poor, with a father prone to doling out corporal punishment for his son’s smallest infractions — like reading during chore time. But when he rose to leadership positions, Lincoln had to relate to well-to-do men, like William Seward and Salmon Chase, who were brought up with every advantage. Even though Lincoln, Seward and Chase had major disagreements when competing for the presidency, Lincoln insisted that each join his Cabinet after he was elected president.

Both Presidents Roosevelt grew up privileged, with doting parents, and received excellent educations. But they were able to empathize with the poorest people in our society. Teddy Roosevelt was a sickly child who dealt with tragic deaths of his wife and parents, leading him to relate to other forlorn folks.


And, of course, FDR created the New Deal and the Works Progress Administration to put thousands to work — thousands who did not possess trust funds as he did. FDR would reach out to experts in business, agriculture, labor, invite them to his home and encourage them to talk about their work, their families, themselves, “making each person feel that this day, this hour was more important to him than anything else,” Ms. Goodwin writes.

During his talk on leadership several weeks ago at the Meyerhoff, former FBI Director James Comey said a good leader, like FDR, must be a good listener and have empathy for others. He gave President Barack Obama as an example.

Lyndon Johnson’s empathy drove him to push civil rights legislation forward and to create Medicare.

Fast forward to today. Republican Sen. Jeff Flake experienced a moment of empathy when he was surrounded in an elevator by women who had been sexually assaulted, causing him to insist on an FBI investigation of the allegations against then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. (Unfortunately, as we later learned, that investigation was extremely abbreviated.)

A few weeks before the elevator incident, Mr. Kavanaugh failed to shake the hand of Fred Guttenberg, the father of a child killed in the Parkland School shootings. Clearly, Mr. Kavanaugh showed no empathy for Mr. Guttenberg, which, should make him feel right at home next to Justice Neil Gorsuch. When serving on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2016, Mr. Gorsuch found that a trucking company had the right to fire a driver who abandoned its vehicle to save his own life. So much for empathy.

On the other hand, Sen. Cory Booker, who grew up solidly upper-middle class and was educated at Stanford and Yale, chose to live in and serve deeply troubled Newark. He served on the City Council, then became mayor, working tirelessly to help citizens in Newark and beyond.

Our society is richer when we have diverse people in it. Each individual plays a role. Understanding people whose backgrounds and opinions may differ from ours makes us better people, more effective leaders.

“With public sentiment, nothing can fail,” said Lincoln. “Without it, nothing can succeed.”


Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Odyssey Program of Johns Hopkins, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best Inc. and author of "The Feminine Irony" and "Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing." Her email is