Leadership and Empathy

Listening is the key to understanding, understanding leads to empathy, and empathy makes me a better leader.

In 2010 I ran for president of Actors’ Equity. 

The union was coming out of a difficult time. Our Executive Director left the Association in November of 2009, and our President resigned about a month later. There was a lot of confusion about these events, and the confidence of the leadership, staff, and the membership was understandably shaken. For many years, the office of the President was filled through an uncontested election. As the new-ish chair of the Election Procedures committee, I saw uncontested elections as a warning sign of disfunction, and I saw healthy debate and robust choice as the hallmarks of a strong organization. I felt strongly that an uncontested race to fill this office vacated so abruptly would be a disastrous message to the members: that whatever went down on the floors high above 46th street, nothing’s gonna change and the members aren’t going to have a real say about it.

So I announced my candidacy in early January, followed closely by Christine Toy Johnson and Nick Wyman. I have to admit that I had serious doubts about my chances. But I knew in my heart that the members I knew best didn’t feel represented, and I was thrilled that the members would have a real choice that April!

My strategy was simple: talk to members, listen to their truth, and bring that back to the Council room.  I woke up early, bought the party-container of coffee at Starbucks and headed out to the NYC audition lines at 6:00 am. I looked people in their sometimes wary eyes, shook hands, introduced myself, passed out coffee to sleepy, yawning faces, and asked them what was on their minds.

I spoke with over a thousand actors in those wee hours lines. Seriously. A THOUSAND actors. One at a time. Face to face.

They were stunned that a sitting Councilor would do such a thing—talk to the members down on the streets, in the cold, dark mornings of winter. I met men and women on those lines with whom I am still friends today, people who’s opinions I highly value and seek out. In those days before social media became so super-charged and ubiquitous, talking face-to-face was the only way to have a real exchange of ideas.  Christine did her own version of this, seeking out members as she travelled the country, listening and learning, and Nick stepped up to campaign some, too. It was unheard of: three candidates for president reaching out to listen to the members.

I’m proud of that race.

After the tabulation of votes, I heartily and happily congratulated President Wyman. And I continued to serve the membership on Council for another six years. I’ve been a trustee of the Pension & Health Funds for the last 11 years. Through the years, I’ve continued to seek out members’ perspectives and opinions, and every time I walk into those rooms, I bring that experience and those voices with me.

In 2010, the die was cast for more member engagement and candidate discourse in our elections.  And that is a very good thing. In this campaign of minute-by-minute postings and Tweets and comments and videos,  I am grateful for the direct line to thousands of members’ minds and lives. But I must confess, I’m still more comfortable sitting down one-on-one with someone and hearing what they think, asking questions, and listening.

Because listening is the key to understanding, understanding leads to empathy, and empathy makes me a better leader.

If you would like to bend my ear, one-on-one, shoot me an email!

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