Empathetic Leadership: Harnessing Self-Exploration and Creative Storytelling for Emotional Connection

Empathetic Leadership: Harnessing Self-Exploration and Creative Storytelling


People in leadership positions often struggle with developing a presence that derives its power from deep understanding of others' human condition. Often, the best way to understand others is to understand the core of our own humanness.

One way to develop such understanding of ourselves is by writing a biographical account, either a fiction or non-fiction. In this episode, Bhavesh Naik, the host of The Business Philosopher Within You podcast, interviews Tope Folarin who has written just such a book. Folarin's debut novel, A Particular Kind of Black Man, started out as a biography but gradually transformed into a fiction.

Join them as they discuss:

  • Tope’s journey as a writer and the unexpected turns it took.
  • The challenges and rewards of exploring identity through fiction.
  • The importance of embracing “flow state” to unlock your authentic creative voice.
  • How understanding your own story makes you a more empathetic leader.

Whether you're a writer, a business leader, or simply someone looking to tap into your inner business philosopher, this episode offers valuable insights into tapping the power of storytelling, self-discovery, and the importance of embracing your full humanity.

Audio The Empathy Connection: Harnessing Self-Exploration and Creative Storytelling for Exceptional Leadership

Video Empathetic Leadership: Leveraging Self-Exploration in Creative Storytelling

Empathetic Leadership: Harnessing Self-Exploration and Creative Storytelling for Emotional Connection 1

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About Tope Folarin 
Author, A Particular Kind of Black Man

Tope Folarin is a Nigerian-American writer based in Washington DC. He serves as Director of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Lannan Visiting Lecturer in Creative Writing at Georgetown University. He is the recipient of the Caine Prize for African Writing, the Whiting Award for Fiction, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, among other awards.

Tope serves as a board member of the Avalon Theater in Washington DC, the Vice President of the Board of the Pen/Faulkner Foundation, and as a member of the President’s Council of Pathfinder.

He was educated at Morehouse College and the University of Oxford, where he earned two Masters’ degrees as a Rhodes Scholar. His debut novel, A Particular Kind of Black Man, was published by Simon & Schuster.

table of contents

"By understanding ourselves, we become better communicators and are better able to understand others."

~ Tope Folarin

Author, A Particular Kind of Black Man

Conversation Summary: Becoming an Empathetic Leader through Self-Exploration in Creative Storytelling

This conversation between Tope Folarin and Bhavesh Naik explores the process of self-exploration through writing and the importance of embracing the depth of our human experience. Tope shares his journey of writing his debut novel and the transformative power of allowing the characters to guide the story. Tope and Bhavesh discuss the concept of relatability in storytelling and the need to expand our understanding of the human experience. They also touch on the role of storytelling formulas and templates in guiding the writing process.

Further, Tope discusses the importance of storytelling and the power of understanding oneself. He emphasizes the role of stories in conveying the human experience and the need for writers to understand the templates and formulas that make stories effective. Tope also shares his writing routine and the importance of setting aside dedicated time for writing. He highlights the benefits of self-exploration through writing and how it can shape one's understanding of oneself and others.

Towards the end, Tope emphasizes that deep self-reflection enables better leadership by fostering empathy, leading to a more harmonious and productive work environment. To achieve this, one must understand their own emotions, motivations, and reactions to understand others better. Writing, particularly fiction, strengthens empathy by requiring authors to consider diverse perspectives and motivations to craft believable characters. Recognizing and appreciating individual differences, such as varying levels of self-direction among team members, allows for more effective leadership.

Folarin concludes by encouraging individuals to engage in the process of self-discovery, whether through writing or other means.

Segment-by-Segment Summary

Following are the sections we covered in this conversation with their summaries, along with the time location in the video and audio to follow along. The timestamps in orange correspond to the chapters in the YouTube version of the podcast episode. This video will display to the lower right as you scroll down. 

IMPORTANT: The audio version of the episode has chapters called "Key Takeaways," punctuated by their own timestamps. 

00:00 Selected Highlights from the Conversation

This segment highlights short snippets of the conversation that share Tope's wisdom on writing, self-exploration and leading through understanding others. 

00:56 Introduction: Unlocking Effortless Productivity Through Humanness

Bhavesh Naik introduces the theme of "The Business Philosopher Within You" podcast, emphasizing the connection between human engagement and productivity in the workplace. He then introduces Tope Folarin and highlights his numerous accomplishments, including his award-winning debut novel, "A Particular Kind of Black Man.” Folarin's background, which includes serving as a director at the Institute for Policy Studies, a lecturer at Georgetown University, and holding positions on various boards, is also mentioned.

02:41 A Particular Kind of Black Man: Reading and Context

This section begins with Folarin reading an excerpt from his novel, "A Particular Kind of Black Man.” The passage recounts a young boy's encounter with an elderly white woman who promises him a place serving her in heaven. This experience is later contradicted by his father, who emphasizes that the only being one serves in heaven is God. Folarin reveals that the novel draws from his own childhood experiences growing up in Bountiful, Utah, as the child of Nigerian immigrants who arrived in the late 1970s.

Terms and Concepts for Exploring Humanness through Storytelling

These terms and concepts provide a framework for understanding the key themes explored in the conversation.

Effortless Productivity and Performance: This term, introduced by Naik in the opening of the podcast, refers to the idea that when individuals engage in their work with "the absolute depth of their humaneness," they can achieve a state of flow and achieve exceptional results. Naik connects this concept to the importance of self-exploration and understanding "what it means to be a human being."

Self-Exploration: Both Naik and Folarin emphasize self-exploration as a crucial process for personal and professional growth. They discuss writing as a powerful tool for self-discovery, with Folarin suggesting that the act of writing can lead to a deeper understanding of one's own identity, motivations, and responses to the world. He also recommends practices such as journaling and reflection to facilitate this process.

Human Experience: This recurring phrase emphasizes the shared nature of human emotions, desires, and challenges, regardless of individual backgrounds or circumstances. Folarin argues that all stories are inherently universal because they offer glimpses into different facets of the human experience. He stresses the importance of engaging with a diversity of stories to broaden our perspectives and foster empathy.

Relatability: Naik and Folarin discuss the concept of relatability in storytelling, challenging the notion that certain narratives are inherently more relatable than others. Folarin posits that true relatability stems from tapping into the fundamental aspects of the human experience that connect us all.

Formulas and Templates in Storytelling: This refers to established narrative structures and archetypes commonly found in fiction, such as the hero's journey, conflict and resolution, and transformation arcs. Naik and Folarin acknowledge the value of these formulas as frameworks for writers, while also emphasizing the importance of creativity and individuality in storytelling.

The Hero's Journey: Introduced by Naik as an example of a common storytelling template, the hero's journey, as described by mythologist Joseph Campbell, follows a pattern found in many stories across cultures and time periods. The hero starts in their ordinary world, receives a call to adventure, initially refuses the call, then ultimately embarks on the adventure, facing challenges and ultimately returning transformed. Naik and Folarin use this as one example of how understanding these classic structures can benefit writers.

The Muse: Both Naik and Folarin allude to the concept of the muse as a source of inspiration and creative energy that can guide the writing process. Folarin describes the experience of "losing control" and allowing the muse to take over as essential for achieving a flow state while writing. He also acknowledges that accessing this state often involves overcoming internal barriers and insecurities.

Voice: Folarin highlights the importance of developing a unique literary voice, which he defines as "your identity on the page." He suggests that finding one's voice is an ongoing process that involves experimentation, self-discovery, and drawing inspiration from other writers.

05:35 The Transition from Autobiography to Fiction

Folarin discusses his initial intent to write an autobiography but explains how the process organically transformed into fiction. While writing about his childhood, the character, originally sharing his name, began acting independently of Folarin's real-life experiences. He describes this as the characters "coming alive" and dictating the course of the narrative, a phenomenon he initially dismissed as "mumbo jumbo." This shift marked the realization that he was crafting a novel, freeing him to explore beyond the constraints of his own biography.

09:50 The Muse, the Flow State and Losing Control

Naik and Folarin discuss the concept of the "muse" and the liberating experience of entering a flow state while writing. They acknowledge the struggle to achieve this state of creative immersion, where words seem to flow effortlessly. Folarin emphasizes the importance of trusting the process, allowing oneself to relinquish control, and embracing the unpredictable nature of creativity. He encourages writers to prioritize generating content over seeking perfection in the initial stages.

14:16 Overcoming Barriers to Creativity

This section uses Alex Haley's experience while writing "Roots" to illustrate the challenges of connecting with a character's experiences. Folarin acknowledges the internal barriers writers face, like self-doubt, getting lost in the narrative, and struggling to find one's voice. He emphasizes the importance of understanding and developing one’s unique literary identity. Folarin compares the writing process to navigating a maze, emphasizing the need for perseverance and faith in reaching the destination. He stresses the spiritual aspect of writing and highlights the transformative power of completing a book.

Reference Books on Self-Exploration, Storytelling and Exploring Human Depth

"A Particular Kind of Black Man" by Tope Folarin

This is Folarin's debut novel, and a central topic of the conversation. The novel explores themes of identity, family, and the experience of being Black in America. This conversation centers around the writing of this novel from the author's deeply intimate perspective. 

"The Hero with a Thousand Faces" by Joseph Campbell

This book examines the common elements found in myths and stories from around the world, which Campbell identifies as the "monomyth" or "hero's journey." The conversation notes that Campbell, influenced by the work of Carl Jung, found that despite cultural differences, people tend to tell similar stories that follow predictable patterns.

"Roots" by Alex Haley

This novel traces the author's ancestry back to Africa and tells the story of Kunta Kinte, who was captured in Gambia and sold into slavery in the United States. The novel was adapted into a highly successful TV miniseries. The conversation references this book to illustrate the difficulties writers often face in authoring deeply personal human stories.

"The Dreams from My Father" by Barack Obama

This memoir explores Obama's childhood experiences in Hawaii and Indonesia, and his journey to discover his racial and cultural identity. The conversation refers to this work as an example of how exploring and owning one's identity makes us integrated individuals and helps us bring an authentic, empathetic presence to leadership.

"On Writing" by Stephen King

This book combines autobiographical elements with King's advice on the craft of writing.

21:29 The Necessity of Editors and Outside Perspectives

Folarin shares an anecdote about his editor at Simon & Schuster who made a significant cut to his manuscript. He recounts his initial resistance to the suggestion, but ultimately recognizes the editor's insight in improving the book. This emphasizes the importance of accepting external perspectives and trusting the judgment of those who can offer valuable insights. He draws a parallel between this experience and a scene from the TV show "The West Wing,” where an unexpected interruption helps the main character deliver a powerful speech. 

24:29 Relatability and the Universality of Human Experience

This section centers around the concept of relatability in storytelling and the notion of universal human experiences. Folarin challenges the traditional idea of “universal” stories, arguing that all human experiences hold inherent value and relatability. He stresses the importance of embracing stories from diverse contexts to gain a richer understanding of the human experience as a whole. Folarin advocates for moving beyond preconceived notions of which stories are considered “universal" to embrace the richness and interconnectedness of human experiences. He suggests that art acts as a reminder of shared humanity, bridging divides and fostering understanding between individuals.

"Every story is universal, reminding us of our shared humanity."

~ Tope Folarin

Author, A Particular Kind of Black Man

34:51 The Importance of Formula and Structure in Storytelling

Naik and Folarin discuss the role of established storytelling formulas and structures, like the hero's journey and genre conventions. While acknowledging their significance, Folarin emphasizes the importance of understanding the reasoning behind these structures and applying them thoughtfully. He draws parallels between musicians' understanding of music theory and writers' grasp of narrative structures. He argues that a deep understanding of these frameworks allows writers to either adhere to or subvert them effectively.

40:50 The Intersection of Personal Growth and Leadership

This section connects the personal growth achieved through writing to its benefits in leadership roles. Naik observes that even fictional narratives often reflect universal experiences of comfort zones, challenges, and self-discovery, mirroring real-life leadership journeys. Folarin highlights the importance of understanding different perspectives, drawing parallels between analyzing fictional characters and leading a team with diverse personalities and needs. He emphasizes that the self-awareness gained through introspection enhances leadership skills by promoting empathy, patience, and composure in challenging situations.

"You need sand before you can build a sandcastle."

"You can't edit what you haven't written."

~ Tope Folarin

Author, A Particular Kind of Black Man

49:27 Practical Advice for Incorporating Writing into a Busy Life

Naik asks Folarin for practical advice on how individuals with demanding schedules can find time for writing and self-reflection. Folarin emphasizes that writing doesn't have to be an overwhelming task and encourages setting achievable goals, such as dedicating short periods to journaling or free writing. He shares his personal writing routine, explaining how he carves out time in the evenings after family responsibilities are fulfilled. He also stresses the importance of creating a conducive environment for writing, whether it's a quiet corner at home or a change of scenery like a hotel room.

55:57 The Transformative Power of Self-Reflection in Leadership

This section focuses on the transformative power of self-reflection, both personally and professionally. Folarin emphasizes that self-awareness is not selfish but rather a critical aspect of leading a fulfilling life and connecting authentically with others. He reiterates that deep introspection can be achieved through various means, including writing, meditation, or prayer. Folarin argues that understanding one's own motivations, triggers, and responses leads to better understanding and empathy towards others.

"I don't think that there's anything more enriching than understanding who you are as a person."

~ Tope Folarin

Author, A Particular Kind of Black Man

1:01:04 Nurturing Leadership Presence through Self-Discovery

This section explores the idea that deep self-reflection makes us better leaders by enabling us to understand and empathize with others. Naik observes that understanding our own stories, motivations, and reactions allows us to better understand those of the people around us. Folarin agrees with this sentiment, adding that the act of writing, particularly writing fiction, strengthens empathy. He explains that creating believable characters requires an author to deeply consider individual perspectives and motivations, even if those motivations are different from their own. This process, Folarin argues, translates well to leadership, where understanding the "full humanity of people" is essential.

1:04:42 Understanding Others through Self-Exploration

Naik makes an observation that the depth of our own self-exploration allows us to also better understand the journey and the world of other people and make us better leader and allow us to bring the power of empathy in our relationships with coworkers and stakeholders.

Folarin builds on this point, highlighting the importance of recognizing and appreciating individual differences in the workplace. Drawing on his own experiences as a writer and leader, Folarin agrees, emphasizing the value of recognizing that "people are just really different," and that understanding those differences can make us more effective leaders. He gives the example of learning to identify which team members require more attention and which are more self-directed, allowing a leader to delegate tasks more effectively. Ultimately, the conversation suggests that leading with empathy, rooted in a deep understanding of ourselves and others, is crucial for creating a more harmonious and productive work environment.

1:09:37 Conclusion and Call to Action

Naik expresses his gratitude to Folarin for the insightful conversation and highlights the unique experience of simultaneously reading his book and discussing it with him directly. He encourages listeners to connect with Folarin through his website and social media platforms. Folarin reiterates his appreciation for the conversation and welcomes future interactions.

"I think that all of us will be much better humans and much better at communicating with each other, and perhaps, most importantly, much better at understanding each other, if we did the hard work of understanding ourselves."

~ Tope Folarin

Author, A Particular Kind of Black Man

Take-Aways: The Power of Self-Reflection, Empathy as a Leadership Tool, The Transformative Power of Writing 

Here are 10 key takeaways from the conversation between Bhavesh Naik and Tope Folarin, drawing from the provided sources:

  1. Effortless Productivity Through Humaneness: Embracing our humanity and bringing our full selves to our work unlocks effortless productivity and performance. This is a foundational theme of Naik's podcast, as described in the introduction.

  2. Writing as Self-Discovery: The process of writing, particularly fiction, can lead to profound self-discovery. Folarin experienced this firsthand when his fictional character, Tunde, began acting in ways he hadn't planned, revealing aspects of himself and his experiences he hadn't consciously explored.

  3. Characters Taking on a Life of Their Own: As writers engage deeply in the creative process, characters can transcend their initial conception and begin to "speak" to the writer, guiding the narrative and revealing unexpected insights. Folarin initially dismissed this idea as "mumbo jumbo" but experienced it firsthand while writing his novel.

  4. The Importance of "Losing Control": Producing impactful writing often requires surrendering to the creative process and allowing the story to unfold naturally, even if it deviates from the initial plan. This "flow state" can be a powerful source of creative insight and lead to a more authentic and compelling narrative.

  5. The Universality of Human Experience: Every story, regardless of its specific cultural context, has the potential to resonate universally because it explores fundamental aspects of the human experience. Folarin argues that embracing this broader view of storytelling is crucial for fostering empathy and understanding in an increasingly interconnected world.

  6. Art as a Conduit for Connection and Empathy: All forms of art, including writing, music, and visual arts, have the power to connect us to our shared humanity and foster empathy by providing glimpses into the emotional landscape of others. Experiencing art allows us to tap into a deeper level of shared feeling and understanding.

  7. The Value of Formulas and Templates: Storytelling formulas, such as the hero's journey or common tropes within genres, provide valuable frameworks for writers. Understanding these structures, even when deviating from them, can help writers craft more compelling and resonant narratives.

  8. The Importance of a Writing Routine: Establishing a regular writing practice is crucial for productivity, especially for those with busy schedules. Folarin recommends finding the time of day when one feels most creatively open and committing to writing during that period.

  9. Writing as a Tool for Leadership Development: The skills honed through writing, such as empathy, understanding diverse perspectives, and self-reflection, are valuable assets in leadership roles. Folarin's experience writing his novel provided insights into human behavior and motivation, making him a more effective and empathetic leader.

  10. The Need for Self-Exploration, Even Without Aspiring to be a Writer: Engaging in self-reflection and exploring one's own emotions and motivations, even without the goal of writing a book, is essential for personal growth and fostering meaningful connections with others. Folarin encourages listeners to prioritize this self-discovery journey.
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