Leading with Empathy

Rev. Donald L. Perryman, D.Min.

By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D.
The Truth Contributor

It’s not our experiences that make us or break us. It’s our interpretation of and explanation for those experiences that ultimately determines who we become.                                                 – Mark Batterson

The single common denominator present in the majority of lives of most successful leaders is adversity.

For one, adversity creates relatable leaders with the ability and skills to understand a situation from others’ perspectives and react by bridging a gap.

Researchers from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) have found that “today’s successful leaders must be more person-focused and able to work well with people from various teams, departments, countries, cultures and backgrounds.”

In addition, adversity creates empathy. Not to be confused with sympathy, typically defined by feelings of pity for another person without understanding what it’s like to be in their situation, according to CCL.

Instead, empathy fosters understanding and cuts across divisions in today’s highly polarized world. Moreover, empathy correlates positively with job performance and leadership success.

This week’s interview is with George Thomas, CEO of the Fair Housing Center.

We will see how adversity served as a hot kiln of preparation for developing his empathetic leadership style and resulting effective career. Here is our recent discussion.

George Thomas

Perryman: Let’s first talk about your journey.

Thomas: I moved around quite a bit when I was young. I went to more than eight different grade schools, so housing stability was not always there. My mother had severe mental health issues, and ultimately, she took her own life when I was 17. So, I had a long journey starting with a lot of instability at the beginning of my life up and through my teen years.

Perryman: Tell our readers about your college education?

Thomas: That’s an interesting story in itself. Nobody in my family had ever been to college before. My grandfather worked at Jeep, and most of my family was in the trades. So, although I didn’t know my father, I have all the stories I heard about him. He was a union organizer and member of the IBEW and the Teamsters. So, I grew up with those stories. It was a bit out of place for me to go to college.

But at the time, there was a lovely young girl that I worked with at Target. She was like, ‘Okay, well, now you’re at the stage where you go to this orientation at the University of Toledo.’ I had no idea what she was talking about, but I went with her to orientation day, and the next thing I knew, I was enrolled at UT.

I was very overwhelmed at that point in my life. I ended up transferring to Lourdes, where the classes were much smaller, and they had a lot of nontraditional students. That fit with me a lot better.

Perryman: You then attended UT Law School following graduation at Lourdes and passed the Ohio Bar Exam?

Thomas: Yes, Law school was when I first realized that the experiences that I had were very different from the vast majority of the people who were in law school.

At one point, we were in a large auditorium class, and the professor was making a point. He said, ‘Everybody raise your hand if your parent was some kind of professional, either a doctor, a lawyer, or another professional.’ I was really surprised. Until that point, it never really dawned on me that most folks had a different perspective and background.

At the same time, I don’t know that I always fit in very well. But, that’s when I realized I wanted to focus on legal aid or assisting people through the legal profession, some nonprofit, legal services, or public interest law.

Perryman: What was your first job after passing the Ohio Bar?

Thomas: Before passing the Ohio Bar, I worked for Judge C. Allen McConnell at the Toledo Municipal Court. He was the judge overseeing the housing and environmental court. I was the research clerk, so I worked on research and helped draft the court’s decisions.

Perryman: Talk about your experience at Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE).

Thomas: I applied for and received an Equal Justice Works fellowship for housing and community development work in the Old South End. It was an excellent experience to see things from a neighborhood and a development perspective, which was different from handling individual cases one at a time.

Then, I worked for the Medical-Legal Partnership at ABLE. That involved partnering with medical providers. I would assist the client with a legal issue that had health implications. I also completed some research studies on childhood asthma and the concentration of childhood asthma in urban areas of Toledo and implications to housing conditions and disinvestment in certain areas, and how our community should address that.

Perryman: What was your position at ABLE when you left?

Thomas: I was a senior attorney, overseeing and mentoring newer attorneys while working on various issues. Becoming a senior attorney gave me more freedom to work on community lawyering issues, meet with community groups, and identify legal strategies to reach their goals..

Perryman: When did you arrive at the Fair Housing Center, and what do you do there?

Thomas: I started employment here in January 2020. Before that, I collaborated with them on advocacy and a wide range of different issues, so it was a natural step to transition to the Fair Housing Center.

So, I started as the vice president and general counsel before becoming CEO. That meant I was working in one way or another on almost all the cases that the Fair Housing Center had, overseeing them and working on research and policy advocacy.

I also oversaw various aspects of the administration, applying for grants and other administrative aspects of the company, like the employee manual or other typical things.

Perryman: Who influenced you professionally or helped shape your legal perspective?

 Thomas: Early on, Judge McConnell was highly influential in how he would think and talk about things. It was important to be around another, much more experienced attorney. I studied for the Bar exam then, and Judge McConnell’s mentorship was extremely valuable.

Also, my father had been very close with an attorney named Jack Gallon, associated with Gallon and Takacs. Interestingly, throughout my childhood and up until not long before he passed away, I would talk with him occasionally. Because he was friends with my father, I could stop by his office and talk with him even when I was young. That was something that maybe a lot of kids don’t have – to know a professional and see what they do. That was more influential than I may have understood until recently.

When I was at ABLE, there was an attorney named Aneel Chablani, who was my supervisor for most of the time that I was there. Also, another Fair Housing attorney that I worked with, named Steve Dane. So many people say that being able to work with him on cases is hugely beneficial.

Finally, there are other people. Again, I am not making this up; you, Rev. Perryman, have been very influential in how I think about things or try to meet with the community and work on items from the community’s perspective and accomplish goals that the community identifies.

There was another attorney I supervised; even though I was her supervisor, she influenced me, Aisha Sleiman. The way she would think about how to approach things, not just the legal aspect of it but how to approach the desire to meet the community where they are and try to accomplish goals from their perspective, was empowering to me.

Perryman: What is your philosophy of lawyering?

Thomas: My whole career has been dedicated to nonprofit, legal aid and public interest attorney work. So, listening carefully to the client community you’re serving and trying to see things from their perspective is essential. So, it’s been my theme to identify and act on their goals and, with that perspective.

Perryman: Please discuss what you are trying to accomplish as the Fair Housing Center’s leader.

Thomas: The Fair Housing Center needs to grow to meet the needs. More and more, housing stability is being understood as a central issue. The availability of safe, affordable housing is a key piece in solving the many social problems and creating a country of communities where that’s the norm.

We are constantly getting pulled into issues related to the rental market, which makes sense because the number of renters is increasing. So, we certainly want to pay attention to that area. However, we also want to remember that home ownership is still a significant way of building wealth, particularly because recent studies have shown that the gap in homeownership rates between Black and white residents is increasing over time. So, getting access to credit opportunities always has been an important issue.

Perryman: So basically, the lack of safe, affordable housing is connected to adverse health outcomes such as exposure to respiratory and toxins such as lead or asthma, increase the rate of crime and violence, and other things?

Thomas: Exactly. The individual home that you have access to impacts the family living there in every aspect of their life. At the center point of all these societal issues is the home, the roof that you have over your head.

My hope in the next year is to build more awareness around that issue and then form some community coalitions that work collaboratively on those kinds of issues.

Perryman: Finally, what traits or skills are best for a public interest lawyer?

Thomas: The ability to research very quickly is vital because if you are trying to have a community lawyering perspective, your clients don’t think about things within the parameters of certain areas of legal expertise. For example, they don’t think in terms of this is a land use issue or this is a criminal law issue. Or, this is a legislative advocacy issue. So, you must be adaptive, which means you must be able to research different problems quickly and develop potential solutions quickly.

The other piece is that the ability to listen and a deep level of empathy are critical. You have to be careful with that, though, because I’ve seen – especially younger folks in this realm of advocacy, whether it’s fair housing advocacy or otherwise – they may be extremely passionate, and I very much appreciate that. Yet, you also have to also be strategic.

I’ve heard a quote, and I’m not sure whom to attribute it to, but they said: ‘The best community organizers don’t get enraged; they don’t boil over. Instead, it’s a constant low boil.’ So that means they’re very empathetic, they’re very hard-working, but they also are very strategic because you don’t want to get so passionate that you don’t see weaknesses in a potential strategy to approach an issue.


Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, PhD, at drdlperryman@enterofhopebaptist.org