Harper Lee, the author of "To Kill a Mockingbird," a classic of 20th century U.S. literature that won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize, has died at the age of 89, according to multiple reports.
Lee, who last year made headlines with the long-delayed release of "Go Set a Watchman," was a master storyteller. The business world can learn much from her example. After all, storytelling has become a staple of contemporary branding and marketing.
If you dive into "Mockingbird," you'll observe a master storyteller at work, weaving a tale exploring the concept of empathy, in all its forms. Empathy--let's define it here as the ability to figuratively put yourself in someone else's shoes--is crucial in business settings for markedly obvious reasons. For one thing, if you understand what your customers are feeling, you'll be better able to design products and services for their emotions.
Likewise, if you grasp how your employees are feeling, you'll become smarter about boosting their engagement. Perhaps it's no wonder, then, that two of the most revered leadership books of all time--Steven R. Covey's "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" and Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People"--are bibles of empathic practice.
"Mockingbird," in its own way, is also a bible of empathic practice. Here are a few examples, culled from the first three chapters (to avoid "spoilers" for new or forgetful readers):
- Toward the end of Chapter 1, narrator Scout Finch (age 5), her brother Jem (age 9) and her next-door neighbor for the summer, Dill Harris (age 6), discuss the ethics of holding a lit match to a turtle, for the sake of getting the turtle to come out of its shell. "How do you know a match don't hurt him?" asks Dill. "Turtles can't feel, stupid," replies Jem. "Were you ever a turtle, huh?" rejoins Dill.
- In Chapter 3, Scout nonchalantly ridicules the eating habits of a lunch guest who comes from a poor family. Calpurnia, the housekeeper and caretaker for Scout and Jem, pulls Scout aside. "There's some folks who don't eat like us," she whispers fiercely to Scout, "but you ain't called on to contradict 'em at the table when they don't. That boy's yo' comp'ny and if he wants to eat up the table cloth you let him, you hear?" (With an ironic touch typical of Lee's best work, Calpurnia punctuates her lecture on empathy with a "stinging smack" to the face of the five-year-old girl.)
- Toward the end of Chapter 3, Scout and Jem's father, Atticus Finch, expressly explains to Scout the concept of empathy. "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view," he says. "Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." Atticus is speaking specifically about Scout's young, inexperienced teacher, who on the first day of school, found herself flustered by the habits and manners of the children of Maycomb, Alabama. "We could not expect her to learn all Maycomb's ways in one day, and we could not hold her responsible when she knew no better," is how Scout summarizes Atticus's lesson.
The point is clear: Before you criticize anyone--be it a school teacher or house guest or employee at your company--put yourself in his shoes. Second guessing is always easy--and seldom effective. At their best, Lee's stories illustrated the power of such personal empathy. In countless situations where her characters were tempted to cast premature judgments, she deftly reminded her readers to always ask that crucial five-word question--Who am I to judge?--and to err on the side of mercy.