Abraham Lincoln; Teddy Roosevelt; Franklin Roosevelt; Jack Kennedy. All four presidents suffered grievous loss in their lives that helped them develop this essential leadership trait.
Lincoln watched helplessly as two of his young sons died, one while he was president. TR lost his mother and wife on the same day in the same house. FDR lived most of his life paralyzed by polio. JFK lost two siblings and suffered from a host of severe health problems.
What they all took away from those tragic, life-altering experiences was a deep-seated empathy for their fellow human beings and a concern for humanity that transcended self-interest. Their public narratives resonated with their constituents in a deeply personal and connected way. Moreover, their suffering contributed to making them strong leaders, presidents whom the public looked to for guidance and comfort in times of national crisis.
Contrast their tremendous empathy with the current White House occupant, a man completely devoid of empathy (and many of the other qualities we associate with being human). Donald Trump has rarely suffered any pain other than financial loss due to his own incompetence and being outed for his scams and lies. His total lack of empathy—or even the ability to “fake” it—can probably be attributed to his narcissistic worldview.
Compare Trump to his opponent in the November election and you see the empathy gap—nay chasm—writ about as large as it is possible to be. Joe Biden’s life has been defined too often by brutal heart-rending loss—his first wife and 1-year old daughter to a car accident that also severely injured his two sons, and more recently a son to brain cancer—sorrow that matches anything experienced by Lincoln, the Roosevelts or JFK. When he talks about this painful history publicly, it is impossible not to feel his emotion, his pain, and his profound compassion for his fellow men and women. He sincerely relates to the people who tell him their personal stories of suffering. His story and the way he recounts it often leaves his audience in tears. His ability to connect to the real-world sufferings of ordinary people affirms both his and their humanity. He understands what people in pain need to hear from a real leader.
This is about as far removed from the way Donald Trump views the world as it is possible to be. Trump’s warped personality makes it impossible for him to relate on any level to the rest of humanity. His empathy deficit leads to the poor and more often than not disastrous choices he has made and likely will continue to make during the current health and economic crises.
Combine Biden’s basic humanity with his experience managing big projects—the federal stimulus bill and its implementation, especially of infrastructure projects, that helped bring the nation back from the brink of economic collapse and turned around the economy in 2009; fostering the Affordable Care Act through Congress in 2010; and overseeing the Obama administration’s manufacturing and retraining initiatives in the second term.
Empathy also impacts other leadership qualities. It is inconceivable to imagine Biden saying, as Trump did: “I take no responsibility.” It is unthinkable to picture Biden tweeting incitements to violence to his supporters. An empathetic leader does not suggest that people consider ingesting toxic substances. A person battered by tragedy and who has had occasion to grieve so deeply doesn’t behave like that. He understands suffering and moves forward, having learned from bitter experience what coping requires. He picks himself up, climbs out of the depths of despair, and develops a world view that aligns with the people he wants to lead toward a better future.
Biden’s challenging life experience makes him understand what people are going through. He realizes at an elemental level what they need. Trump is completely incapable of comprehending this. Biden’s empathy has also has made him an altruist, a word that is not part of the Trump vocabulary.
The time has come to get empathy back, an essential quality for any leader.
April 24, 2020