The former president of LaGrange College on Tuesday said empathy is the most important quality in today’s leaders.
Stuart Gulley, speaking to members of the LaGrange-Troup County Chamber of Commerce, said a new type of education called “design thinking” is getting some attention. The theory doesn’t put such great value on memorization of facts, since so much basic information may now be found via the Internet. Instead, people are taught to think creatively and work collaboratively, which leads into practicing empathy.
“If we had to diagnose the problems in Washington, D.C., it would be because of the leadership’s inability to be empathetic,” said Gulley, who now is headmaster at Woodward Academy in Atlanta.
But the legislators were made that way through gerrymandering in their districts. The legislators only need to worry about the opinion of those in their small district, which usually isn’t diverse. They also don’t spend as much time in the capitol getting to know each other.
“There is now a climate where compromise is not rewarded,” he said.
Gulley praised LaGrange Mayor Jeff Lukken, saying part of his success as a councilman for four years and mayor for 16 was because of his empathy. Gulley also admitted to missing LaGrange, where he spent 13 years.
“They say ‘home is where the heart is,’ and this is definitely home for the Gulleys,” he said.
A line of former co-workers and friends stretched to greet Gulley as he gave his remarks and the fondness for the former leader was obvious. But Gulley said it was one student’s experience, all the way back in 2004, that proves to him he did the right thing by practicing – and teaching – empathetic leadership.
In May that year, the college invited back the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, who now is a preacher in Ohio but had grown up in LaGrange as a minority. As a child, Gulley said, Moss’ only experience at the college was driving by it, then he get a job washing windows for extra money.
“That was the only access afforded him,” Gulley said.
Moss gave a speech at the baccalaureate dinner that was one of the most meaningful and powerful nights of Gulley’s time here, Gulley said. But when he got home, there was a message on the answering machine from a parent of a student who said the ceremony was “nothing more than a meeting of the NAACP.”
“I could have taken a physical blow to the gut better than that,” Gulley said.
Graduation the next day was done without incident and when Gulley got home there was another message – from the student herself. The student, who Gulley cannot to this day identify, said she knew her father had called the night before.
“She said, ‘I didn’t experience the ceremony that way, and I just wanted you to know you’ve challenged my mind and inspired my soul,’” said Gulley.
Challenging the mind and inspiring the soul is the school’s motto.
“She was able to experience the event through a lens of someone different from herself,” Gulley said. “Whatever our work is, to be successful, we have to be concerned about each other. We have to be able to see the world through the lens of someone else.”