The Empty Truth

Three months into my job as Dean of Students at SMU, I was invited to welcome a group of students to campus. It was on a Friday evening at the start of a 24-hour retreat before classes started. It was a mixed group of students. Returning students were there to welcome new students to the campus community. Of course, I had spoken to groups of students before, but those had been about specific topics and purposes. This was an official welcome and I was the most senior campus leader who would speak to them this weekend. Trying to find a way to say something useful, warm – beyond ‘we’re glad you’re here’ – maybe even inspirational was daunting. So I did what I often do. I turned to my bookshelf. There I found a wonderful book, Under the Big Sky by Trevor Romain. Yes, I decided to read a children’s book to a group of college students. It was a hit and, as a result, I have shared children’s books with students, faculty, and staff ever since.

The Empty Pot

One of my favorite books is The Empty Pot by Demi. The synopsis from describes the book this way.

“When Ping admits that he is the only child in China unable to grow a flower from the seeds distributed by the Emperor, he is rewarded for his honesty.”

With exquisite illustrations and simple vocabulary, Ping’s story evokes his struggle to achieve a goal. Even the most cynical listener can feel Ping’s shame. He had been so proud of his skills and talents. Now, when he needs them most, he is failing. Ping’s story reminds us how difficult, and how powerful, it is to stand before power with nothing but the empty truth. I most often use this in a workshop centered on ethics and integrity and it always provokes a reaction.

Acting with Integrity

When I facilitate the Leadership Dance workshop, there’s always a moment toward the end when I stop the group to make a point. I’ve just taught them a basic underarm turn. And they are all feeling pretty confident in their new skills. It’s at this point that the potential for someone to get stepped on is at it’s highest. It’s then that I remind them that the lead for a turn is an invitation rather than a command. No matter our position in an organization, we never give up responsibility for our ethics and values. We never give up our responsibility for our health and safety and that of others.

I know we all know this, but daily we are watching stunning examples of courage and integrity and equally stunning examples of ethical failures across our organizations and communities. It feels like a good time to remember Ping, his empty pot, and his courageous act of integrity – standing with his empty truth.


If you are interested in the full story, here’s a recording of me reading The Empty Pot.

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