Servant-Leadership 101: Principle of Empathy (Hidden Figures Video Example)

The second principle in the Acronym Model of SERVANT-Leadership™ is Empathy. This 7-minute lesson demonstrates this principle, as learned by Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner), through the courage of Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson). Johnson is part of a team of female African-American’s playing a vital role in the early days of the NASA space program. Johnson wrestles with the obstacles of segregation while meeting the high demands of Johnson and the NASA space race.

This is a real-world example of empathy in action. Here we see both what can happen when we fail to practice empathy and how to respond when we discover this gap.

As Harrison fails to grasp the impacts of segregation on his Ms. Johnson, he becomes unhappy with her absence. Through Johnson’s frustrations and courage, Harrison learns an important lesson in the critical role of empathy for leaders. He then does his best to remove the obstacle.

Questions for Further Development:

  • What challenges do you know your team faces?
  • What challenges might each team member face, that you are not aware of?
  • How do you practice empathy with your team?

If you or your organization could use support developing leaders, let’s talk!


Full Video Transcript

Ms. Johnson: I have to walk to Timbuktu just to relieve myself and I can’t use one of the handy bikes. Picture that Mr. Harrison. My uniform… skirt below my knees my heels and a simple string of pearls. Well I don’t own pearls! Lord knows you don’t pay colors enough to afford pearls. And I work like a dog day and night living off of coffee from a pot, none of you wanna touch!

So, excuse me if I have to go to the restroom a few times a day

Ben: In the scene you’re about to watch, the United States is still in the throws of segregation when we see Katherine Johnson, played here by Taraji P. Henson, one of the first black American scientists to work for NASA, confronted by her boss. Katherine Johnson was responsible for calculating trajectory launch windows and emergency return paths for project Mercury, including flights for Alan Shepard, the first American in space and John Glenn, the first American in orbit and many more.

Her calculations were also essential to the beginning of the space shuttle program and she worked on plans for missions to Mars. Her boss, Al Harrison, played here by Kevin Costner, is a middle-aged white male, determined to drive his team hard to beat the Russians in the space race. He notices Katherine is not at her desk for large windows of time and becomes very upset. And that’s where we pick up this scene….

Mr. Harrison: Ruth, get me the cape on the line. Shepard’s trajectories need to be updated!

Mr. Harrison: Wow! Where is she?!

MUSIC: Don’t act like you were there, when you wasn’t…

Mr. Harrison: Where the hell have you been?! Everywhere I look, you’re not where I need you to be. It’s not my imagination. Now, where the hell do you go every day?!

Ms. Johnson: To the bathroom, sir.

Mr. Harrison: To the damn bathroom! For 40 minutes a day? What are you doing there? We’re t-minus zero here. I put a lot of faith in you

Ms. Johnson: There’s no bathroom for me here.

Mr. Harrison: What do you mean, “there’s no bathroom for you”?

Ms. Johnson: There is no bathroom. There are no colored bathrooms in this building or any building outside the west campus, which is half a mile away! Did you know that?! I have to walk to Timbuktu, just to relieve myself and I can’t use one of the handy bikes. Picture that, Mr. Harrison! My uniform… skirt below my knees, my heels and a simple string of pearls. Well, I don’t own pearls! Lord knows you don’t pay coloreds enough to afford pearls! And I work like a dog, day and night – living off of coffee from a pot, none of you wanna touch! <PAUSE>

Ms. Johnson: So, excuse me if I have to go to the restroom a few times a day


Mr. Johnson: There you have it! No more colored restrooms. No more white restrooms. There’s just plain old toilets. Go wherever you damn well please. Preferably closer to your desk. Here at NASA? We all play the same color.

Ben: Many of the challenges faced by Katherine Johnson were, sadly, very common during segregation. Yet, her boss was oblivious to the problems that she was struggling with. As a leader, you must recognize those you serve have challenges you may not realize. Having the resolve to drive a team to be better and achieve more is important. But, you must also have empathy for those you serve.

Ben: You must be willing to listen to them, put yourself in their shoes – or as I like to say, put yourself in their muddy boots. You see, too often we will say, “put yourself in their shoes” and they just might tell you about a sunny day – the best times in their life. So, those shoes might be sandals on a beach during vacation. Remember, “muddy boots”. Put yourself in their muddy boots – what’s it like in their most difficult times.

Ben: How are you practicing empathy with your teams? How are you looking for problems that you might not be aware the team is facing? How are you being sure to practice empathy with your team and your organization?

Hidden Figures
20th Century Fox
December 10, 2016


Picture of Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

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