Cory Booker has long insisted on the power of the individual to affect social change. In fact, the U.S. senator (D-N.J.) once lived in a tent for several months--in a rough neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey--to better understand the needs of what would become his constituency. He's also said to carry an African proverb around with him that translates to: "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."
So it might surprise you that Booker admits to having lacked empathy on several occasions. "I am in struggle, as we all are," the senator said, speaking at the commencement ceremony for the University of Pennsylvania on Monday.
In particular, Booker recalled an incident in which he and his driver came across a homeless man who was rummaging around in a dumpster outside of a McDonald's one afternoon. When the homeless man asked if Booker could lend him some socks, the senator apologized and said he didn't have any spares. But before the car pulled away, his driver reached down, undid his shoelaces, and presented the man with his own socks. The moment was illuminating for Booker, who insists that many leaders--himself included--still fail to tap into what he calls this "moral imagination," or a more creative way of giving back to the community on a daily basis.
"I've begun to learn that perhaps the biggest thing you can do, on any day, is just a small act of kindness, of decency, of love--to give an exhibition of moral imagination, or creative compassion," Booker told graduates on a breezy morning, at the lip of the crowded Penn football stadium.
"We miss our opportunities every single day with the people around us," he continued. "We have such power that we do not use as we go about our big challenges, our big goals." By harnessing this undervalued power, great leaders will have an even greater impact, Booker says.
To whom, then, should entrepreneurs look for an example of this "moral imagination"? Booker suggests Mahatma Gandhi, the famed leader of the Indian movement for independence under British rule. A renowned pacifist, Gandhi is once said to have lost his sandal while boarding a train. Rather than lamenting the loss, Gandhi allegedly threw his second sandal onto the tracks, in hopes that someone would find the pair of them.
"More than our race, more than our religion, it is our actions every day that define us," says Booker. "We can never allow our inability to do everything to undermine our determination to do something," he added.