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There’s More Than One Way To Be A First Responder

First responders have been in the news a lot lately: brave men and women who rush to those who need them in mass shootings, weather catastrophes, and war zones. Their courage is worthy of our support. But recently I’ve been wondering, who gets to be called a first responder, and why only them, and who decided this? I’d like to see the phrase expanded to include other brave souls, like the people who work every day to avert catastrophes before they happen–the first, first-responders. They are people who, despite pushback, doubt, and lack of funds, try to wake up the world and help us change outdated habits and destructive behavior, people like climate scientists, or city planners, or development economists. I know, these sound like nerdy jobs, but what if we’d exalt them along with the classic first-responders? And how about daycare providers and nurses and social workers? Isn’t the work they do as courageous and necessary as the work of firefighters or police or soldiers?

Sometimes, when I introduce a friend, I’ll say, “This is Linda. She’s a first responder.” And the other person will turn to Linda and say, “Oh, you’re a firefighter?” And I’ll interrupt with, “No, she teaches first grade. She’s trying to save lives before they need to be saved. She teaches kids skills like self-awareness and empathy and impulse control. She models how to ask for help, how to take responsibility and admit wrongdoing, how to speak up against injustice. So yeah, she’s a first-responder. She’s doing the hardest job, the first job—for all of us.” Often the other person’s eyes glaze over. But I persevere. One of the reasons I feel so strongly about this is because I’ve had the privilege of leading emotional intelligence workshops with classic first-responders, and I can tell you that the brawniest dudes are way more scared of having heart-to-heart conversations with their wives or kids or colleagues than rushing into a burning building.

It turns out that being vulnerable, admitting ignorance or fear, telling difficult truths that might upset someone else, but doing it anyway, with courage and compassion—these are scary things for all of us. But it also turns out that these kinds of emotional intelligence aptitudes are just the skills the world needs now. I call them the new first responder skills.

A large body of research backs this up. Multiple studies—from business, the military, and universities—report that leaders who get the best results tend to show more strengths in emotional intelligence, or what they erroneously call “soft skills.” There is nothing “soft” about emotional intelligence since soft has come to mean weak and ineffective. Studies by Stanford Research Institute and the Carnegie Mellon Foundation among Fortune 500 CEOs established that 75 percent of long-term job success resulted from soft skills and only 25 percent from hard skills. In the business and leadership worlds, hard skills are defined as abilities that can be measured and taught in a series of concrete steps, skills an employee needs to do a specific job. By contrast, soft skills are described as less tangible traits, such as empathy, transparency, integrity, self-awareness, communication, and other skills that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people. Soft skills are also described as personal attributes that are self-taught and self-developed.

Well, that’s the problem right there! Soft skills are only self-taught and self-developed because we have not valued them enough to teach them. But we actually can teach people to interact effectively and harmoniously with others. These are critical proficiencies that every school and university, every organization and municipality can and should teach. These are not soft skills. They are the new first responder skills.

ELIZABETH LESSER is the author of several bestselling books, including Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow and Marrow: Love, Loss & What Matters Most. She is the co-founder of Omega Institute, recognized internationally for its workshops and conferences in wellness, spirituality, creativity, and social change. She has given two popular TED talks, and is one of Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul 100, a collection of a hundred leaders who are using their voices and talent to elevate humanity.