Tag Archive for: empathy

How To Transform Suffering Into Service – Leadership In Action

“Only when we learn to be humble about ourselves, can we begin to respect others.”                                                                           – Lindsay Leigh Kimmett

A sign of great leadership is the ability to transform the inevitable losses of the human experience into something beyond the loss. While certainly not seeking pain, a person of character does find a special attractiveness in difficulty, since it is only by coming to grips with difficulty that they can realize their potential. Below is a story of courage and compassion, along with strategies to turn grief into creative endeavors that serve the greater good

Lindsay Leigh Kimmett was an athlete, a leader, and a medical student with enormous potential to do great things in the world. But her life ended when, as a seat-belted passenger, she was tragically killed in a single car rollover in 2008. Lindsay’s parents were consumed with unimaginable sorrow at her untimely passing, “but in an attempt to move forward positively,” they were determined to carry on her legacy. Lindsay’s family and friends created the Lindsay Leigh Kimmett Memorial Foundation in honor of her memory. To date, more than a million dollars has been invested into our community in Lindsay’s name through an array of initiatives, including Valedictorian Scholarships at all the three Cochrane high schools, the Dr. Lindsay Leigh Kimmett Prize in Emergency Medicine at the University of Calgary Medical School, and Lindsay’s Kids Minor Hockey & Ringette Sponsorships. Since her death, Lindsay’s family has also been very active in supporting Alberta’s distracted driving legislation and asks all to drive responsibly without distractions.

Great leaders have the willingness and capacity to turn sorrow and hardship into a gift that benefits others. Those who experience grief and have the courage to work with it and work through it, emerge a better person, enabling leadership qualities like perspective, patience, clarity, and empathy. Through learning to grieve in a healthy way, you open yourself to the capacity required to live in harmony and balance with one another and the earth.

Here are six ways to transform loss into a gift that benefits others:

  • Make room to grieve. Let life touch you. Stop and allow grief to surface when it is present. Go to funerals. Allow yourself to cry. If you can, be with your pet when they die. Spend time with a dying relative or friend. Community can be built in tragedy. Don’t be afraid to grieve and share your grief with people you care about and who care about you. Allowing yourself to grieve enables you to accept loss as a part of the good life. Grieving is a lonely journey and should not be traveled alone. You may never “get over it,” but you can work through it – by acknowledging honestly what is happening inside you, and allowing your heart to open, both with yourself and with others.
  • Accept what is. “Impermanence,” writes the poet Jennifer Welwood, “is life’s only promise to us, and she keeps it with ruthless impeccability.” Maturity means having the courage to face life as it is. Life, at some level, is a series of problems to solve. Do we want to spend our life moaning and whimpering about this, or spend our days living in the solution? At some point in our lives we have to be willing to grow up and realize that yes, life hurts. It’s hard. It’s all part of the human experience. The sooner we can accept that life is difficult, the sooner life becomes a little less difficult. Life happens. Pain is a part of our existence. At some point we have to build a bridge and get over it.
  • Let go of the anger. Anger is often born out of suffering, especially when someone or something has caused your loss. While it is part of the process of grief, unacknowledged anger or anger that festers inside, turns into the bitter poison of resentment. The antidote to anger? Name it. Claim it. Take responsibility for your reactions. Then have the courage to let it go. An indication of strong character is the courage to bear an injustice without a motive of revenge.
  • Be willing to not know. Sometimes the best you can do is accept what is. Although it is human nature to seek control through answers, sometimes the answers simply aren’t there. Often you have to delete your need to understand. A sign of maturity is the courage to accept the vast and inevitable unknown of the human experience, and the willingness to let go of the need for complete comprehension.
  • Let grief be your teacher. In the arduous journey of grief, if you pause every so often to open your heart and look within yourself, you will discover that the grief is guiding you to be a better person. While you may not be able to find your gifts in the immediacy of tragedy, keep an open mind to what life’s adversities can eventually teach you. Loss and subsequent grieving can foster, among other things, the ability to be compassionate, to connect more meaningfully with others, and to gain perspective and clarity about what matters most.
  • Turn sorrow into service. In an effort to move forward constructively, find ways for your loss to fill a need in the world. While establishing a foundation was the Kimmitt’s way to transform grief into positive action, there are many ways you can make the world better through your loss. Being open to what grieving can teach you will amplify your ability to impact others through a stronger leadership presence.

I have deep admiration for what the Kimmett family has done for our community and more in light of their tragic loss. Their willingness to turn sorrow into service is authentic leadership in action. May their story inspire you to embrace the inevitable and at times seemingly unjust and often unanswerable tragedies of life as you stumble forward – with courage, conviction, and compassion – on the journey to being a better person and a better leader.


A first-grade teacher recently told me of a sad trend among her students. At the end of the day, she stands in the playground waving good-bye as her kids climb into the backseats of their parents’ cars. As they excitedly scramble into the car seats she witnesses their enthusiasm as they can’t stop talking about their day. The parents, however, are becoming increasing non-responsive. Instead, they are looking, not back towards their child but down, absorbed in their electronic devices.

When I heard this story I was imagining what the relationship between these children and their parents would be in a few years when the parents want their teenager’s attention.

The distraction of these parents is a symptom of how we have allowed technology to capture our attention and disrupt our connections. Daniel Goleman in his book, Focus, tells us that in 2006 the word pizzled entered our lexicon: a combination of puzzled and pissed, it captured the feeling people had when the person they were with whipped out a BlackBerry and started talking to someone else. Back then people felt hurt and indignant in such moments. Today it is the norm.

The onslaught of incoming data leads to an inability to focus on a simple task like reading or attending to people before we get an urge to go online to check our email or texts. The volume of the messages leaves us too little time simply to reflect on what the messages even mean.

This inability to attend was foreseen in 1977 by the Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon. Writing about the coming information-rich world, he warned that information consumes “the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

Learning to make contact with people in an attention impoverished world works like strengthening a muscle. If the skill isn’t developed it can wither; exercise it and it grows. Here are three ways to develop your capacity to attend to what matters – a vital leadership and relationship skill in our complex, demanding world.

1)    Turn off technology.  I know people who, after reading two pages or talking with someone for two minutes, become anxious or have a craving to check email or incoming texts. It’s addictive. Schedule times to check your email, and turn off the message alert in between. Make a pact with people at work that you will be present during certain times in the day or the week – without technology interruptions. Remind those who depend on you that the world won’t stop if you take a few hours before responding to an email. When you get home from work, practice leaving your phone in a drawer while you are present for the people you care most about.

2)    Practice a little dose of empathy every day. Empathy is the ability to “feel with” another person, to convey understanding from another’s frame of reference. Empathy isn’t about trying to “fix” somebody or rescue anyone from their unhappiness, but means putting yourself in their place, and attending to them with caring presence. Every day presents opportunities to express empathy and connect with someone on an emotional level, even for a few moments. You can even do this at a bus stop when you recognize that the person standing next to you is cold, or pay some attention to a colleague down the hall who is nervous about the possibility of being laid off. This is how you cultivate trust, give others a sense of belonging, and make room for human contact. Devices will never be able to convey empathy.

3)    Get on the bench. I heard once that when Wayne Gretzky sat on the bench between shifts on the ice, he could lower his heart rate from 180 BPM to below 50 in less than a minute. He was able to completely unplug from the intensity of the game during these rest periods. For many of us, it’s a luxury to get some uninterrupted private moments during the day when we can lean back, rest, and reflect. We are always “on the ice,” in the midst of nonstop emails and demands from others. Without time to rest, our brain is thrown into a state that opposes the open focus where innovation flourishes. In the tumult of daily demands and to-do lists, there is no room for creativity that comes from focused attention. The stories of significant discoveries are rife with tales of brilliant insight during a walk, in the shower, or on a vacation. Down time lets the creative juices flow. Tight schedules kill innovation and connection. Take some unproductive time daily to simply tune in and attend to the natural world around you. Or just stop for a few moments at your desk. Sit back. Close your eyes. And take a little non-thinking time for yourself. What Daniel Goleman calls a “creative cocoon.” Get off the ice of demands every so often and onto the bench.

How do you strengthen your attention muscle? How do you practice being present and tuned in to the world around you? How are you there for others? How does increasing your ability to be attentive improve the quality of your life and relationships?