Imaginative Compassion in Life and Leadership

As leaders, we must understand that others are counting on us to be imaginatively compassionate.

Paul Henken

University of Tennessee College of Law, Class of 2025

I delivered these remarks to peers and college administrators at my MBA graduation dinner in Louisville, KY on September 15, 2022. I dedicate my efforts to becoming a compassionate leader to my mother, my hero.

My childhood home enjoyed stillness most of the time, other than the hums of a washing machine, the pitter-patter of kitten paws on hardwood, and the soft rumbles from passing cars. But one day, this stillness was disrupted by a voice singing the catchy melody of a school tune. The voice was sharp, clear, a bit off-key, but bold enough to rattle the aging home.

The singing belonged to my sister. At first, I treated her singing as nothing but a slight inconvenience. But as her volume increased, her singing invaded the home and threatened the stillness we had previously enjoyed.

Wanting to liberate the home of this inconvenience, I stormed to my mother, who smiled at dirty dishes below her weathered hands. In a tone that I had no business using at my age, I questioned my mother: “Aren’t you going to stop her singing!? We can barely think!”  My mother turned to me, smile now gone, and responded, “Paul, you know exactly why I will never stop your sister from singing.”

And she was right. I did know.

When my sister was young, it was discovered she had a small opening in the roof of her mouth, which prevented her from speaking loudly and clearly. During most of her childhood, her voice was little more than a whisper. She was often cut off, ignored, or overspoken by those with stronger voices.

Eventually, she had the small opening surgically repaired, and after years of whispering, she was finally able to fill a room with her voice. Her singing was not her attempt to bother the home, but rather, she was enjoying a new voice that she had never had before.

This story demonstrates two interesting facets of life and leadership, the first being that compassion requires imagination. Humans spend a startling amount of time daydreaming, yet, when it comes to imaginative compassion, we are not very skilled.

I had used all my imaginative brain power to dream up storylines about how I was affected by my sister’s singing. Without realizing it, I isolated myself in my own world. Had I been imaginatively compassionate, I might have stumbled upon better explanations for my sister’s singing and what singing meant to her. Maybe she was happy that her best friend agreed to a playdate that weekend. Or maybe she had just endured a difficult math test and was singing to cope. Or maybe she was exploring a new voice she never knew she had. The interesting thing about this idea is that the more you practice imaginative compassion the more you realize how often your conclusions about the world may be wrong.

The bottom line is that in life and leadership, we do not tend toward imaginatively compassionate thinking, but we should. It is a critical skill we must develop so that when we lead, we may guide ourselves and others toward a path of understanding and community.

The second facet of life and leadership this story demonstrates is that everyone finds their voice at different times, in different ways, and, more importantly, in ways that might interfere with our own expectations. Someone’s voice is their own creation, crafted out of personal introspection, confidence, and vulnerability. When we use imagination to isolate ourselves, we destroy opportunities to build relationships and communities that encourage safety, understanding, and acceptance.

By setting expectations for others in our minds, we construct boundaries for our own voice. Instead of being open to new ideas, we close ourselves off; we choose a static path, rather than one founded on exploration and perpetual forgiveness.

The insight from this story is that, as leaders, we must understand that others are counting on us to be imaginatively compassionate. When faced with frustrating circumstances, we can serve as a beacon of understanding and acceptance in a world that so often forgets that everyone, at one point in their life, discovers the previously unknown voice that makes them who they are. It is upon leaders to create environments in which new voices are discovered and supported and all voices are heard.

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