The Dynamic Duo: Empathy and Dignity

Years ago, when I worked in the corporate world, the most valued executives were the turnaround artists. Those who could see things as they were, and then as they should be, without being blinded by entrenched legacy thinking. This skill-set enabled them to strip out the anchors—both big and small—that were causing the enterprise to drift, or worse, sink. Clarity, both in terms of vision and focus—coupled with simplicity—were often all that was needed to set a new path to victory. The most rewarding thing for me, when I filled the turnaround role, was not the subsequent organizational victories or even my own compensation. It was watching those team members who had been there, both before and after the reset, have their outlook on life transformed as well. To see them regain their sense of dignity. It was as close as I have come to witnessing people being born again. Helping people believe in themselves is the highest calling of any leader.

I have been around since the Soviets launched Sputnik which, among other things, popped America’s balloon of esteem and sanguinity that had prevailed since World War II. It made Americans doubt themselves and their leadership. The Soviet message: “We are coming for you. Yes, we helped you beat the Nazis, but we, not you (America), will be the world’s next superpower.” That history has now been written. The doubts instilled by Sputnik were met by Americans with resolve and ingenuity. We won. The United States responded not just with a superior ideology founded in capitalism and democracy, but with a sense of fortitude based in responsible individualism, perfectibility (making things better than the way they were found), and the guiding light of exemplar exceptionalism (setting the example for others to follow). These values resided in our collective commitment to humanism; in the dynamic duo of empathy and dignity.

To be clear, as many scholars and pundits and detractors have argued throughout the period of America’s ascension to the role of lone superpower, we didn’t come close to getting everything right, and many people were left out of the fruits of success. Women and people of color shared much less of the spotlight or bounty. However, on the whole, a rising tide did lift all boats. Until, of course, intoxicated by success early in the twenty-first century, responsible individualism morphed into narcissism; perfectibility was sacrificed for an adolescent sense of entitlement; and, exemplar exceptionalism gave way to hubris. The turnaround artist in me, tasked with describing what had happened in a particular company to its board of directors, would ascribe these shifts to tactical drift; an admittedly genial assessment. A more accurate characterization might be that like drunken sailors we fell into the bay of stupidity. The core strategic cause of America’s current decline resides deep inside our moral conscience. We have abdicated our commitment to empathy and dignity, which are (surprisingly) relative newcomers to the lexicon of humanity.

The word empathy has only been with us in the English language since 1903. It came to us from the German word, Einfühlung, which means “in feeling with.” Initially, it meant projecting one’s own sense of aesthetics into another object—especially in contemplating art. It wasn’t until psychologists co-opted it to mean our capacity to understand the thoughts and emotions of other human beings in the 1930s that empathy came into its current meaning. That doesn’t mean we did not have, or practice, empathy prior to 1903, we just didn’t know what to call it. However, when you don’t know what to call something it is very difficult to understand it, let alone teach it, or develop it within a society. Until the early twentieth century, the notion of empathy was like an orphan: no one knew its name and few would take responsibility for it. When people were “in feeling with” something or somebody it was often by accident.

Dignity is also a relatively new word, at least in how we apply it today. In “A History of Human Dignity” (, Remy Debes illustrates how dignity, which today means the “inherent or unearned worth that all humans share equally” meant something quite different until after World War II. Until then, dignity was earned as a matter of merit; it was bestowed to describe social status “of a kind associated with nobility, power, gentlemanly comportment, or preferment in the church.” As in “dignified” or “dignitary.” It is understandable, then, why dignity does not appear anywhere in our Declaration of Independence, nor in the Constitution. Perhaps if we had embraced its current meaning at the founding, the phrase “all men are created equal” might have been applied across gender, race, and religion. But, no. Its first meaningful application in establishing itself in the moral conscience of America did not come until 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations.

The relative youth of these terms does not, however, diminish their power as essential considerations in the manner which we conduct our lives or, for that matter, in how our country contemplates its role in the world. Standards of behavior and the words that describe them do evolve. Empathy and dignity are fundamental values we must re-embrace if we are going to heal the division in our own country and wage a moral vision that is, once again, how we will win against authoritarianism that is on the march in more of the world every day, and in the Trumplican Party here in the United States. The capacity to walk in another person’s shoes and grant them the same respect we expect for ourselves is today’s keystone in the proverbial arch of humanity. Without it, there is no humanity. When the keystone falls out, other stones/values crumble into a pile of rubble. Which, today, is sadly and regrettably the honest state of affairs at home and abroad.

The good news is that during the twentieth century in America we exercised empathy and assured the dignity of others when we were forced to compete with those who wished to destroy the sanctity of civil society for their own nefarious aims, placing humanity itself in great peril. To a large degree, that is what World War II and the Cold War that followed were all about. Today, we must understand that Trump was the warning shot across our bow of morality, and Putin is the missile of devastation attempting to take our world back to the Hobbesian days where morals do not exist and the currency of life is coercive power. When you observe those who are angry about their lot in life, like the Trump supporter who fears they are losing their social/economic/political position in America, or the young black man being targeted by cops, or women who see their reproductive rights being stripped away, they have this in common: they believe that their dignity—their fundamental sense of self-worth—is under assault.

Although the state of humanity was indeed consistent with Thomas Hobbes brutish view of man for centuries, I would like to believe we have it in ourselves to do better. We can debate whether morality is innate or learned, but this much is clear: the moral foundations of empathy and dignity, as historically expressed in America as a commitment to responsible individualism, perfectibility, and exemplar exceptionalism, must be restored if we are to remain a free and prosperous people. In the end, whether you are a turnaround artist or the leader of the free world, transforming people’s lives is about winning in a manner consistent with cultural dispositions and with due care for people’s sense of dignity. Peaceful communities will only be sustained when people are seen, heard, appreciated, and respected on their own terms. The urgency of this calling—by leaders of all stripes and responsibilities—must not be ignored.