What makes a great leader? I’ve been asking myself this for years now. I was asking it before America was very nearly plunged into a fascist dictatorship and I’ve asked it ceaselessly since then. Capriciousness and dictatorial behaviour does not an effective leader make. Timidity or even remoteness are also ineffective. Presidential scholars will often cite the Nietzschean “will to power,” as the driving force behind a President’s rise to power, but this does not seem to truly translate into effective leadership. At best it results in almost psychopathic personality traits.
I will accept the possibility that ego and selfishness can drive a person to power. That is absolutely true of our worst Presidents. James Polk, Richard Nixon, and Donald Trump don’t have a lot in common, but each of them came to the Presidency uninterested in service and the public good and with an expansive view of executive power. And all three of them very nearly tore our country apart.
In contrast, Presidents like Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama exercised humility, compassion, and radical empathy. They made mistakes. But each of them set in motion events that would eventually make our country better. Two of them paid with their lives. The most recent paid with his youth.
Empathy is a process.
It’s extreme radical strength.
Empathy means being able to sit there and be insulted and still take action and make decisions that will benefit and protect the people who insult you. It means being able to patiently explain your point of view even to those you know do not want to humanize you. It means being willing to defend demographics you have no connection to and who may or may not ever be in a position to reciprocate against inestimable odds.
I am sort of parroting enlightenment ideology here and I understand where such arguments can fall apart but democracy done right is empathy and rationality rolled up into one. It’s incremental. It’s slow. It involves tearing yourself apart and offering up everything to people who may not appreciate you or even want to murder you. It is near impossible to be this sort of person and become President. JFK was not initially this type of person. He became this type along with his brother. JFK and his brother were originally against Civil Rights legislation, but as they learned more their position entirely changed.
Obama and Lincoln were already deeply rational and empathetic people but they were that way through relentless curiosity and endless study. Neither one of them ever even took a pause in reading. If we can describe their presidencies in terms of a character arc they did become more and more invested in the lives and happiness of others, but both of them already came from a relatively informed and empathetic position.
Lincoln was always firmly abolitionist, but his articulation of it and likely his emotional understanding altered through his public service. Initially, he like many of his contemporaries viewed America as a fundamentally white nation. He understood that slavery in particular was morally repugnant, but his initial approach did not fully incorporate Black Americans. It was through reading and through advice from people like Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman among others that Lincoln began to extend his empathy to include Black Americans.
Had he lived we might have avoided Jim Crow. Despite everything Lincoln’s choice of Johnson as Vice President was due in part to political savviness but also because he understood that the South needed to be chastened but also ultimately forgiven and reincorporated. Johnson would have helped with this under Lincoln’s Presidency and his decision to pardon confederate soldiers was not really wrong. But Johnson did not have the vision and radical empathy that Abraham Lincoln had cultivated throughout his life. And for that our nation suffered for over a century and still suffers today.
When we suffer we often try to reassure ourselves with the idea that we’re still safe. We still have food. We still have shelter. We can still afford a cup of coffee. But what comfort is that when there are others who do not have those simple necessities?
Empathy gnaws especially when you cannot go out and “save” everyone.
Empathy will keep you up at night worrying about people who hate you. Empathy makes you take jobs were you’re drastically underpaid. Empathy makes you work for free. Empathy gets you up in the middle of the night to take your neighbour to the hospital. And empathy puts a target on your back.
Empathy is the greatest trait you can possibly have. Any leader who is truly a great leader, not a conqueror or a wartime President or Prime Minister but a true leader will have endless empathy. And it will tear them apart. Because no matter how much power you attain you cannot solve every ill.
Empathy hurts. Empathy will keep you from speaking up when someone speaks ill of you when they’re hurting. Empathy will put you in harm’s way. Empathy will put you between a child and a car. It will make you work at a hospital during an epidemic. Empathy will make some people think you are weak when you know you’ve already taken the sort of damage that would obliterate them.
But empathy is also heroic. It is the greatest form of love a person can have and even if it doesn’t turn you into a Barack Obama it will cause you to be fondly remembered even by those who want to hate you.
Only the greatest and strongest among us can be empathetic. But we need empathy: radical uncompromising empathy. It will never stop hurting because there’s no end to pain in this world. But if you are strong enough it is worth every pain, every sleepless night, and every tear.
Empathy can cost you your life. It might give you cancer or it might give you a stroke or heart attack, for JFK and Lincoln it was a bullet through the brain. But it might not. Not everyone who practices radical love dies young. Barack and Michelle Obama are still with us. Hopefully we’ll get to keep them into their very old age. They have done and continue to do wonderful things.
The price of empathy is astronomically high. But, it is worth it.