If you recently scanned a bestseller list and thought you stepped back in time, your eyes did not deceive you: Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" is on national bestseller lists for the first time in 55 years. Readers are returning to it in preparation for the July 14 release of Lee's follow-up, "Go Set a Watchman." 

Sales have been so brisk, that they are responsible for Barnes & Noble showing a "glimmer of growth" this year, according to Bloomberg. "Go Set a Watchman" also happens to be Lee's first book in 55 years. So its release is nothing short of an industry event, full of attendant publicity: A PBS "American Masters" special about Lee is slated to air July 10.

What does all of this mean, if you're a business leader? A lot. Love it or hate it, storytelling has become a staple of contemporary branding and marketing. Dive into Lee's masterpiece, and you'll observe a master storyteller at work, weaving a tale that explores the concept of empathy, in all its forms. 

That's another reason any leader would be wise to add the book to her summer reading list. 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. 

In Covey's book, the fifth habit--"Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood"--is essentially an empathy commandment. Carnegie's book, for its part, is filled with examples of how leaders both famous and anonymous practice empathy through listening and questioning. To Kill a 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?" Ironically, 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.

These anecdotes and lessons dovetail nicely with a story Carnegie tells about Abraham Lincoln, whose rise to success he had researched intensely.

In fact, four years before "How to Win Friends" came out in 1936, Carnegie authored a book called "Lincoln the Unknown," which he'd spent three years working on. It's a deep dive into Lincoln's people skills, including his empathy. As an example, Carnegie cites a letter Lincoln wrote to a general who disobeyed his orders during the Civil War:

I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee's escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely... Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.

Clearly, this is a stern rebuke. The lesson Carnegie has to offer is a simple one. Lincoln never sent the letter. It was found among his papers after his death. Carnegie's speculation about why Lincoln never sent the letter is fascinating and, more importantly, plausible. His best guess is that Lincoln's highly empathic thought process went something like this:

It is easy enough for me to sit here in the quiet of the White House and order Meade to attack; but if I had been up at Gettysburg, and if I had seen as much blood as Meade has seen during the last week, and if my ears had been pierced with the screams and shrieks of the wounded and dying, maybe I wouldn't be so anxious to attack either. If I had Meade's timid temperament, perhaps I would have done just what he had done.

The lesson is clear: Before you criticize anyone--be it a school teacher or house guest or war general or employee at your company--put yourself in his shoes. Second guessing is always easy, and seldom effective. 

Published on: Jun 29, 2015