Compassion and Empathy: Lessons from My Family's Dining Table to the Boardroom

Aug 18, 2023

From the corridors of schools to the aisles of organizational hierarchies, the principles of compassion and empathy remain timeless and universal. As leaders, we often look for large gestures to show we care, but sometimes, the most impactful actions are inspired by our past's humble lessons.

Growing up, I watched my Dad, Mom, and Grandmother extend their hands and hearts to family and friends emigrating to the country. We always had our home open, and our table was always full, providing food, comfort, and a sense of belonging to newcomers to Canada. So the value of caring for others wasn't just taught but was exemplified through my parents and grandmother's everyday actions toward family, friends and neighbours.

I recall a memorable childhood lesson centring around my KFC piggy bank. In grade two, I started treating my classmates to snacks every day after lunch. The intention was simple: ensuring that those who didn't have lunch have something to eat. I ensured everyone received the same amount chips and snack that l placed on napkins on each of their tables. While my year-long gesture landed me in a meeting with the school's counsellor and vice principal and my parents as they were concerned with where the money was coming from to fund this effort; it was soon realized that my actions reflected the compassion and empathy I had seen and felt at home. The administration staff acknowledged the positive impact of my gesture, revealing that many students in our area often came to school without lunch. My small act of kindness helped bridge a gap many weren’t even aware of.

Most importantly, my relationships with my classmates were stimulated and improved. Some of the differences students felt were overcome as we shared a snack together and found commonality. The teachers even allowed snack time to become a moment of sharing personal stories and perspectives, and when l had to stop sponsoring the snacks after the school year, the teachers did continue the effort.

As we relate some lessons that this experience allowed me to learn, what insights can be gained to support organizational leadership development?  Upon reflection, here are a few that I have taken from these memories.  

Lessons for Leaders:

Small Acts, Big Impact: Just as my snack-sharing initiative made a difference, leaders can take simple, thoughtful actions to show their teams they care. Sometimes, acknowledging efforts, offering flexibility, or simply listening can make a difference.

Cultivating a Culture of Empathy: Leaders should show compassion and foster a culture where empathy is celebrated. Encouraging team members to look out for one another creates a supportive, understanding environment.

Understanding Beyond the Surface: Just as many students in my school hid their hunger, employees too might mask their struggles. Leaders must understand their teams deeply, recognizing that they may face hidden challenges.

Leading by Example: Compassion and empathy aren't demanded but can be demonstrated. When leaders embody these values, they set a tone that spreads across the organization.

Valuing Learned Behavior: Just as my parents and the school recognized and appreciated the intention behind my actions, leaders should celebrate acts of kindness and compassion, understanding that these behaviours are often learned from personal experiences and histories.

I hope you appreciate the story l have shared and the lessons learned. As we continue to lead in today's ever-evolving business world, where technology and strategy are continuously shifting, the values of compassion and empathy remain true. As leaders, reflecting on our past can carry lessons to improve our leadership, like those I learned at my family's dining table, creating organizations that succeed and support team members. May your leadership be an open door and full table for your teams, offering nourishment for body, mind and spirit.