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Obama and the Age of Empathy

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A few weeks back, Arianna chronicled in grim detail just how wide-reaching and painful the effects of the current economic recession have been. Simply put, as the middle class has been squeezed, the working class has been cut off, as countless charities and government programs aimed at the most needy Americans have fallen apart. But she also offered hope in the form of a call for compassion. She noted that people who serve the needy feel more fulfilled and have an outsized impact on the fortunes of our country in the process: "As America's Misery Index soars, so must our Empathy Index."

Empathy's gotten a bad rap. Too often, we think of empathy as lovey-dovey affection or pity for the unfortunate, when it's actually the hard-wired human capacity to step outside of our own perspectives to see the world through the eyes of other people. As the authors of Wired to Care, a book about the power empathy has to transform business, politics, and pretty much everything, we were heartened to see the critical message of empathy written in such bold strokes by Arianna. We were also moved to build on Arianna's ideas, because the need for individuals to practice greater empathy is only part of the challenge ahead for our nation and our economy -- and perhaps a small part, at that. It's even more urgent for our institutions, whether commercial, political, or educational, to develop a widespread sense of empathy for the people they serve. In the long term, we don't just need a stronger safety net to help those in need -- we need to strengthen the fundamentals of our economy and society by building stronger connections between people and organizations.

Our brains have developed subtle and sophisticated ways to understand what other people are thinking and feeling. Simply put, we're wired to care. We rely on those instincts to help us make better decisions in situations that affect the folks around us. Unfortunately, that instinct seems to get short circuited when we get together in large groups. We lose our intuition, our gut sense for what's going on outside of our inner circle. Corporations become more insular. Colleges start to feel like ivory towers. Political parties take on a "bunker mentality." That sort of isolation can have disastrous effects because these same institutions depend on the outside world for revenues and reputation and votes. That's particularly true during a crisis. It's bad enough to be out of touch in good times. In bad times, such a malady can be fatal.

And as the markets have crashed, the disconnect between companies and people has become unbelievably, some would say comically, evident. Over the past six months, we've seen a parade of clueless CEOs embarrassing themselves in front of Congress. We've watched the Wall Street CEOs who presided over the collapse of the market struggle to understand what, if anything, they should be apologizing for. We've witnessed the CEOs of the Detroit automakers fly to Washington in private jets to ask for bailout money in the least plausible demonstration of poverty in American history. And we've even had to see Stewart Parnell, the CEO of the Peanut Corporation of America, sit like a deer in the headlights while refusing to answer a single question about how his company's products came to kill nine people and poison 600 more. Or even to say whether he would eat his own product. Congress has been drowning in performance-anxiety sweat as leader after leader has dodged questions, mumbled their way through prepared remarks, and generally waited for the hurting to stop. Each in their own way, these CEOs have shown us what our economy cannot be in the decades to come.

For the companies and leaders actually trying to dig us out of this hole we find ourselves in, now is the time to fundamentally rethink their approach to business. Despite the complexities of our economy, the only reason any company is around is because it sells something that people believe can meet their needs. And rather than look inward for additional cost cuts and efficiencies that they can develop, it's high time that executives inside companies get outside of their bubbles and discover what the rest of the world needs from them. Not only can this help them come up with ideas worth buying, it can help them to eliminate bad ideas. No one outside the reality distortion field of Wall Street could have believed 30-to-1 leverage on subprime assets was a good idea. But this is the problem with insularity: it's impossible to create something valuable if you don't understand people well enough to know what they value.

Fortunately, the opposite is also true. When you have a deep connection to the people you serve, it's far easier to know what's really going on in the outside world -- and what you can do to make it better. And on this front, at least, our outlook should be very optimistic, right up to our highest post. Whatever his struggles may prove to be in the coming years, Barack Obama understands that the only way his administration can succeed is by understanding what people outside the White House are thinking and feeling. That's why he goes out of his way to communicate through the venues where the American people actually get their news, like YouTube and The Tonight Show. It's why he recently confided to CBS's Steve Kroft that he reads ten letters from ordinary Americans every single day. And it's why he has shown a willingness to engage in conversation with countries the United States has denied diplomatic relations for decades, including Iran.

More than anything, he's trying to fight the insularity inherent to positions of great power. The more successful you become, the less your life resembles that of the majority of the population, and the less, ultimately, that you're able to make decisions that do right by them. Many recent presidents have approached difficult problems by assembling the smartest minds in one room to create a plan for action. Bill Clinton acted this way, sequestering his wife Hillary Clinton with health care wonks to hammer out a failed plan in 1993. George W. Bush followed similar patterns, most infamously for Vice-President Dick Cheney's energy task force, which forged a plan so secret that the panel's identity has never been released. Obama, by contrast, makes sure that his advisors understand what ordinary people are going through before they come up with a plan to resolve crises. He reads those ten letters every day, he told Kroft, "just to hear voices outside of my staff."

None of us knows exactly what it will take to get our country and the global economy out of the hole that we have dug for ourselves. We've got a lot of broken systems and companies to rebuild, a lot of people to hold accountable for bringing us to this precipice, and a lot of hard work to do just to get through the rest of 2009. But of this much we can be certain: the disregard for other people shown by our business and political leaders over the last several decades has made the current crisis deeper than it might otherwise have been. And if our leaders can take the opposite path and make empathy central to our recovery, we will come to better answers more quickly and be able to act upon them more easily. People are wired to care. For the hope of our nation, it's high time our institutions were, too.