One thing that I used to be rather bad at, was empathy. Placing myself in someone else’s shoes was hard for me. For an entrepreneur this is very important, it is a lesson worth learning. The story that helped me learn this lesson is about Abraham Lincoln, a very inspiring man. It will help you too!
The young Abraham Lincoln
When Lincoln was a young man, he was a very critical man. He would give his comments on just about anything you can imagine, including cynical remarks about other people. It is hard to imagine this man would become on of the most influential and admired people the world has ever known.
The turn around came when the young Abraham, then a state legislator, published anonymous letters in the Sangamo Journal of Springfield, criticizing the work of James Shields, attorney and auditor of the State of Illinois. Back in those days it was rather common to challenge someone to a duel, which was exactly what this man did.
Since Shields had challenged Lincoln, Abraham had the privilege of choosing weapons. He chose the broad sword. On the day of the duel, it quickly became apparent that Lincoln had made a wise decision; his long reach ultimately led to Shields backing out of the duel.
This dire situation learned Lincoln a lot… he vowed never to criticize another person again. Instead, he would do his best to understand the other person. Lincoln learned to use empathy instead.
Empathy during the civil war
During the civil war, Lincoln showed his greatest act of empathy. It is this moment that I always remember when I come to situations that need me to put empathy to use.
After being defeated twice in battles before, general McClellan had finally gotten General Lee defeated. Both parties had suffered enormous losses, and Lee saw no other option than to run. McClellan and his army gave chase. It came down to a very important choice; attack Lee again or give up the chase…
McClellan decided that his men had suffered enough and blew off the chase. When Lincoln received his debriefing he was furious. He immediately wrote a letter explaining McClellan that he could have won the war, if he hadn’t such a stupid decision… The letter was never posted however, and was later found amongst the papers that remained after Lincoln had deceased.
What did happen was that Lincoln placed himself in the shoes of McClellan. His men tired, wounded or dead. Not enough supplies to get back, let alone fight. Lincoln decided right there that if he had been in McClellan’s position, he would undoubtedly have made the same decision. So who was he to criticize!?
Remember that this decision led to many more deaths. Something Lincoln knew all too well. Still, he could imagine making the same decision. This is empathy. And whenever I find myself in a situation where I need to place myself in someone else’s shoes, I remember this story. If Abe Lincoln could do it when so many lives would be lost due to this decision; then who am I not to do the same for far lesser problems?