Now is the best time to be at a school — finals are complete, summer plans are set, and we’re celebrating our students', particularly our seniors, hard work and achievements. As these young women and men graduate, parents, teachers, family, and friends reminisce about difficult classes conquered, winning shots on the basketball court, or the favorite art piece now hanging in a place of pride at home. And we imagine how these skills set the stage for greater success, at college and in the real world that’s just around the corner.
But when I looked out at my school’s 61 graduates, during Baldwin’s recent commencement exercises, what made me most proud were not the content of the lessons they learned in history and computer science, or the talents they honed as scholars, athletes, and artists. What made me most proud — and most excited for what’s to come — were how these young women were living examples of lessons from kindergarten and grade school, which most of us have long forgotten as adults.
It was the little ways they helped each other, in and out of school. How they stopped to hug a younger student when they passed each other in the halls. How they found creative ways to support other students, caring for those around them whether they were friends or not. In short, what mattered most were these graduates’ moments of empathy and compassion.
Indeed, this sort of appreciation for and understanding of others mean more than most students and adults realize. But it’s not for the reasons you may think. It’s not just because actions of compassion and connection help create a warmer, friendlier school environment, and lead to individual and collective successes in labs, classrooms, and studios, on the soccer field, and the performance stage.
It’s because empathy will help our recent graduates be better leaders, citizens, and community members for the rest of their lives.
Studies show that it’s the soft skills that matter most in the real world. That the biggest difference between average and amazing leaders — almost 90 percent of the time — is “emotional factors, not intellectual acumen.” And, in particular, that empathy is critical to success.
Consider that the U.S. Army’s field manual on leadership — a manual used across the military to benchmark some of the best leadership training in the world — lists empathy as one of the critical character traits that define a good leader. The ability to “understand another person’s point of view, identif[y] with others’ feelings and emotions, … and talk[ing] personal action to improve the situation of [those around you], even potential adversaries” is considered essential for a strong, effective leader. Not just in the military, but in every organization or any facet of life.
Empathy helps executives better predict what their teams will need, more effectively inspire loyalty in others, and communicate more clearly. It can be the key to impactful mentorship, provide an advantage when negotiating, and help leaders increase employee satisfaction and create a safe, respectful, and productive workplace. One study suggested that over 90 percent of CEOs directly link empathy to their companies’ financial performance.
What’s more, in today’s 24/7 world of technology-driven connections and globalization, leaders need more than ever to be “person-focused” and able to personally connect not just with the coworker down the hall, but also the employee on the other side of the world. It’s the competitive edge that today’s leaders need to succeed.
So when we talk to this year’s graduates, let’s not forget to emphasize that it’s not their ability to read and write well, code effectively, or solve problem sets that will make the biggest difference. That’s helpful, of course, but not sufficient. It’s the skills they developed in kindergarten and honed throughout school that will matter most. When they learned to put the Golden Rule into practice — to “treat others as you would like to be treated” — and understood how to not just be empathetic but actively share that empathy with others.
That’s what provides the lasting advantage no matter where you head next, no matter what passion you pursue, or what leadership role you assume. That’s what we should be congratulating this year’s graduates for.
Marisa Porges is head of school at the Baldwin School, an independent pre-K through grade 12 all-girls’ school in Bryn Mawr, and author of the forthcoming book “What Girls Need.”