To understand before seeking to be understood

No person is an island, though we sometimes delude ourselves into thinking so.

As an individual, my own joy and sorrow is intricately connected to that of certain people around me. When a loved one dies, a part of our self dies with them. It hurts when a close friend moves away or falls out of favour. Every friendship is an investment, however small, of ourselves in another person. We are all part of a connected whole and once we lose our moorings in this sea of connections, we find ourselves lonely and depressed.

Further, our empathy, our ability to feel what another person feels, is reserved for people we can connect with. We are less likely to be moved by hundreds of children in a far-away land dying in a war, as as we are by a couple of children in our neighbourhood who die in a road accident. The more somebody is like us, the more connected we feel with them. We are not jealous of the queen of England and we do not care much about starving children in an unknown African country.

Great leaders are charismatic. Through the strength of their personality, they get thousands of strangers to be connected with them in an instant. They gather influence in a sliver of the time it would take for somebody else to do the same thing. Their power to get people to rally around their vision seems mystical. They seem to be masters in getting people to do their bidding and fight for their cause.

But let us not put the cart before the horse.

Each of those leaders first observed the people around them, understood them and realize where they wished to go. Only then did they form their compelling visions that millions could connect with. In other words, they connected first before they sought connections. Mahatma Gandhi was an ordinary lawyer before he forged a connection with his fellow Indians’ innate desire for dignity and self-respect. The same can be said of Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela in their respective circumstances. Their influence was a mark of their efforts to understand humanity. The people they led were also the people they served.

The starting point for leadership is not to formulate a vision that we find compelling and expect others to follow us. It is to dig deep enough to unearth a mission that is common to the people we want to serve, and lead them towards where they wish to go.

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