Elizabeth Dow

is president and chief executive officer of Leadership Philadelphia

Sometimes on vacation, you get a perfect snapshot that sums up the essence of the trip in one great photo. Likewise, occasionally a movie offers up a brilliant and impressionable concept that makes seeing it worthwhile. Such was the case recently when I saw Flight, the Denzel Washington movie.

The movie is a nuanced character study of a pilot whose heroism, demons, and humanity entwine and unfold around a fascinating plot.

In a conversation between the captain and a stewardess, he asks, "How many souls on this plane?" Not how many people (a generic way of seeing them), or how many seats filled (the economic view), but how many souls.

Soul is not a word much in use these days, especially when applied to designate an individual. This use of the term reflects a time-honored maritime and later aviation convention in which passengers are referred to as souls - as in, "How many souls were lost when the Titanic went down?"

As a frequent flier, I find this word not only respectful and comforting, but startling in the way a perfect word choice sometimes stops you in your tracks. Using the word souls reminds the crew of the gravitas of their work - of the precious cargo they carry: not simply undifferentiated people, but loved ones, soldiers, and a mass of humanity.

I find the concept of serving souls, as opposed to serving people, a powerful reminder of how important it is to see the humanity in each person - to be careful with them. For years I have been saying that we teach people that the city of Philadelphia has a heartbeat - it is a living entity that needs cultivation and care. Showing you the soul of the city makes what was invisible visible and causes you to care enough to make an effort to connect with it and serve it.

At a recent staff meeting, I shared the Flight story, and suggested that in private we refer to our clients and alumni as souls. Something about serving souls makes you stand at attention - at the ready - knowing how precious, important, and enduring this contact is. We already see our work as a calling - so referring to clients in this way makes sense.

Today as you walk down the street, or talk to coworkers, or watch the news, try thinking of people not as strangers or colleagues, but as souls. When you walk in the door and enter the chaos of your family (or past your neighbor or doorman), try labeling them as souls. See what changes in you - and in them. Together let's make this a soul-full season.

E-mail Elizabeth Dow at edow@leadershipphiladelphia.org.