Understanding Empathy: Lessons from Cyclone Phailin

“My shop has been badly damaged in the showers and the wind, but I had promised my customers I would serve them food from today itself. Hence, I have opened my shop,” stated Rahul Kant, an entrepreneur, one day after Cyclone Phailin. Rahul runs a south Indian eatery on the beach in Gopalpur, which was the epicenter of the cyclone.

I was amazed to hear about the attitude and commitment of this man who wanted to open his shop a day after a major cyclone had struck.

As a training consultant, I am always asked the question, “Can you provide a training program on ‘Fostering Ownership’?” Sounds easy on the surface, however, we all know that one training program is not enough to do so. Ownership and Accountability are what we term assoft skills, which, put simply, are the skills paramount for effectual interpersonal relationships.

Where does ownership come from? I keep looking at the statement made by Rahul Kant and I ask myself the question – “What within him is driving him to overlook his safety and focus on the needs of others and open his store to provide food for his community?” I think the answer is empathy, a soft skill that is a key part of Emotional Intelligence. Empathy helped him to prioritize the ‘need of his community’. Empathy enabled him to take ownership for the recovery of his people.

I believe the key to fostering ownership is giving people a cause to believe in. One that is bigger than themselves, and connecting it to how they play a role in contributing to that cause i.e. the ‘bigger picture’. This clearly explains why enhancing soft skills is a major focus of leadership programs today. The ability of a leader to see the bigger clarity and lead his/her people there is imperative to the success of an organization.

The cyclone Phailin that hit Orissa in India brought out some wonderful examples of people suspending their personal agendas and working together to contribute to the ‘bigger picture’. The Hindustan Times reported that 30,000 electricity workers in state of Andhra Pradesh, who had been on a strike to protest the division of the state (the Telengana issue), came back to work to deal with the emergency situation. Rediff.com also reported that Hindu and Muslim communities in Orissa joined together in offering prayers for the safety of the people of the state.

There is nothing better to bind people together than a common goal. The disaster prevention efforts for Cyclone Phailin have been termed a success because everyone saw the ‘bigger picture’ and took ownership to make a contribution in the roles that they could play. I believe the key in corporate business is the same. People need to see the ‘bigger picture’. That is why in leadership training programs today, leaders are encouraged to answer these questions:

• What is the ‘bigger picture’ that our organisation is contributing towards?
• How do we enable employees to understand the ‘bigger picture’ and their contribution towards it?
• How do we connect their ‘inner picture’ to the ‘bigger picture’ of our organisation?

Cyclone Phailin has left a lot of devastation in its wake but it has also given us the opportunity to witness the goodness and courage in people like Rahul Kant. I am proud to be an Indian!

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