This disability advocate wants CEOs to stop talking about radical empathy—and start practicing it

November 16, 2021, 12:01 AM UTC
Leadership in the Dark

Early on Monday evening about 30 of the world’s most powerful business leaders sat blindfolded together in the lower levels of a swanky Washington D.C. hotel. 

No, this wasn’t a hostage situation. It was an exercise in radical empathy, individual empowerment, and inclusion held at the Fortune CEO Initiative. 

Led by Sara Minkara, the U.S. Special Advisor on International Disability Rights under President Joe Biden, the group of executives entered the room blindfolded and were led through a series of exercises where they were asked to talk to one another without revealing their official titles. 

“It was only in the last two years that I heard a significant number of leaders start to talk about empathy and empathetic leaders,” said Alan Murray, Fortune CEO, at the start of the exercise. “I assumed it was always important, but it didn’t get the kind of attention before that it got during the pandemic.” 

Minkara, who lost her vision at the age of seven, teaches empowerment through integration, which intends to disrupt the narratives around disability through advocacy and inclusion training. 

CEOs described the experience as enlightening. By taking away the power of a title or the power of physicality, they were able to consider ideas without prejudgement, listen carefully, and get to know their peers on a deeper level. 

Many said they’re integrating similar exercises in their own offices. Stacy Simpson, chief marketing officer and global leader of corporate responsibility and diversity, equity and inclusion at Genpact, said that her company now regularly practices anonymous brainstorming. 

“That way, the idea lives on its own merit. No one thinks ‘oh this idea came from the CEO so it’s a good one by definition’ or ‘a board member said this so it must be a good idea.’” she said. “We want to empower every single person to bring their ideas to the table and to feel like they have a space to bring those thoughts forward.”

Many in C-suite positions are actively discussing how to bring empathy to leadership in their organizations. “But there’s a difference between talking and doing,” said Simpson. “What if we stop talking and just start doing, start putting ourselves in other people’s shoes, start taking on that vulnerability and be willing to rid yourself of all of the accolades that precede you.” 

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