Leadership Iowa: Lasting Lessons in Empathy

June 27, 2024

As communicators, two of the first things we consider are audience and purpose: who are we trying to reach and what do we want them to do? But if you take it one step farther – and you certainly should if you want to be effective – you need to consider what may uniquely capture the attention of each audience.

The only way to answer that question is to imagine what it must be like to be a member of that audience. To have empathy.

Empathy is at the core of effective communication, which is why my recent experience with #LeadershipIowa has impacted me deeply and will have lasting effects on my work.

Billed as “The Course for Our State,” Leadership Iowa is a program of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry (ABI). Each year, they assemble a cohort of around 40 individuals from across Iowa. From October to June, the class travels monthly on two-day visits to Iowa towns to learn about the key topics and issues affecting our communities.

My graduating class of 2023-24 went north, south, east and west to learn about agriculture, manufacturing, government, health care, education and economic development. We had an opening session in Winterset, then travelled to Carroll, Fairfield, Des Moines, Dubuque, Grinnell and Forest City. In June, we graduated at the ABI Taking Care of Business Annual Conference in Davenport.

Through it all, we learned what it’s like to live, work and own businesses in these towns. From labor shortages to legislative discord to affordable housing gaps, nearly every town and company we visited shared similar concerns. But we also learned what they celebrate: these are proud communities that have figured out how to harness the charm of their Main Streets to attract visitors, foster innovative public-private partnerships to spur growth and use innovation and hard work to create products and services sold and shipped around the world.  

As a cohort, we toured facilities, talked with leaders, asked questions (so many questions!) and had spirited, yet respectful, debates. We looked at the issues and opportunities from every angle and sometimes surprised ourselves with how often we actually agreed on the core concerns – even if, on the surface, we had a different take.

That’s how you build empathy. You talk to a person about what it’s like to stand, walk, build and lead in their shoes. And you come out the other side (hopefully) having a better understanding of all sides, even if you still disagree.

Participating in this course was a big investment of time, and I’m incredibly grateful that our leaders at Wixted & Company were not only supportive, but excited about this opportunity. I’d return to the office each month filled with enthusiasm and a lot of new knowledge about different communities and topics, eager to share what I’d learned and how it might apply to our work.

I always returned with a greater understanding of the issues and opportunities facing our clients in diverse sectors. It was fulfilling to consider how this knowledge will help inform communication strategies and tactics we might engage moving forward.

On graduation day in early June, I stood beside leaders from an assortment of occupations and backgrounds. I walked across the stage and accepted my plaque; I gave hugs and said goodbye to my classmates. My time with Leadership Iowa over the past year helped me grow in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I have a much greater appreciation for how most of us are more similar than we are different when it comes down to what’s actually important.

Through greater understanding comes empathy – and then connection. And that’s the heart of any effective communication strategy or tactic. Connecting with your audience is the only way to effectively inform, persuade and motivate. Otherwise, it’s just noise.


Blog by Kristie Bell