Empathy And Regret
Several weeks ago as I embarked on one of my daily walks, I was listening to a podcast about the most essential elements of good leadership. The host and guest were talking about the quality of empathy, a trait I’ve touched upon consistently since I began this newsletter several months ago.
The host made a comment I had never heard before: “Regret is a function of empathy. If you think carefully about regret, it is most often associated with a lack of empathy by the person experiencing the regret. “
That comment struck a chord with me. And it brought me back to one of the most troubling episodes of my leadership career, one I have rarely shared with other people.
About 30 years ago I was in the relatively early stages of a 32-year-run overseeing the continuing legal education department at Georgetown Law Center. We had a team of eight people, including an Assistant Director who had been there for many years. One Monday morning I came into the office to discover that he had experienced a heart attack and was in the hospital.
Another team member, who was friendly with him, told me that Robert was in Inova Fairfax Hospital but could not speak on the phone or accept visitors due to his condition. During the next several weeks, I kept monitoring his condition through this friend and kept asking when I could visit him. The answer was always not yet.
After about a month, Robert returned to work and seemed OK. I and the rest of our team expressed our concern and our happiness that he was fine and had recovered completely from the heart attack.
Several years later, after Robert had moved on to another job, a CLE team member informed me that Robert never had a heart attack at all. He actually had a cocaine habit and had suffered an overdose. He convinced his friend on our team to lie for him, pretend to be his supervisor and to forge papers so that Georgetown University would not learn what had happened.
I was stunned. I felt betrayed. I was as angry as I think I’ve ever been at work. I never confronted Robert, but I carried those feelings with me.
Several years later, I received a call at home on a Saturday night. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was Robert. As soon as he said, “Hello, Larry, I’m sorry to bother you at home on a Saturday night,” I knew it was him.
He called me to tell me he had AIDS. He apologized for what he had done and asked for my forgiveness. I was surprised to hear from him and was at a loss for words. I went with my gut. I told him that given the severity of his actions and the extent of his duplicity, I was not yet at a point where I could extend forgiveness.
My empathy did not show up at that moment.
Robert said he understood and would accept my decision. He apologized again for his behavior and the way he had treated me. We wished each other luck and said good night.
A week later I received a phone call from Robert‘s best friend. He told me that Robert had just died from AIDS. I was one of the few people whose names Robert had put on a list to be notified and to be invited to his funeral on the Eastern shore of Maryland.
From that day 25 years ago until today, I have carried this regret with me – regret that I could not bring myself to forgive Robert for what he had done. Recently, when I told this story to a wise leadership teacher. She reminded me that it was now time to forgive myself.
I am finding it challenging to do so.
As you move forward on your leadership journeys, please do not make the same mistake I did many years ago. Learn to find your empathy when it is needed the most. When we learn to find empathy and forgive, we are engaging in the healing process. The forgiveness is actually not for the other person but for ourselves.
When we empathize, we do not have to forget, but we can become better leaders if we learn to forgive.