Archive for the ‘Leadership’ Category

On Empathy And Thoughtful Leadership

Thursday, May 10th, 2018

In his May 1 column for Risk & Insurance, Roberto Ceniceros, evoking the memory of Abraham Lincoln, describes and recommends a leadership style radically different from that of the tweet-driven current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Like Mr. Trump, Lincoln had quite a temper. However, over the course of his life he came to recognize it as a weakness. In many cases, when someone caused his blood to boil, which happened frequently during the Civil War, rather than immediately lashing out, he would often withdraw and write a letter to the offending party detailing in stark terms his great disappointment. He would then put the letter in a desk drawer and more often than not never send it. This mental health exercise would calm him and allow him to deal with the issue in a more thoughtful manner.

in his column, Mr. Ceniceros suggests Lincoln’s method defines a highly self-aware and empathic person. He writes that this behavioral characteristic was shared by four other historical figures described in “Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times,” written by Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn.

As described by Mr. Ceniceros, Keohn’s book:

…includes the story of Ernest Shackleton, hailed in previous business-management books for leading his shipwrecked and isolated crew off Antarctic ice flows. The other biographies feature abolitionist Frederick Douglass; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, imprisoned by the Gestapo and murdered for opposing the Third Reich; and scientist and author Rachel Carson, who raced against cancer to finish her manuscript on the dangers of mass pesticide use.

All five of these courageous people overcame nearly impossible challenges, but Shackleton, who simply refused to let anyone under his commend die on their perilous journey, and Lincoln, who simply refused to let the Union die on his watch, embody an empathy of heroic proportion.

Another person who should be included in this group is Ulysses S. Grant, 18th president of the United States. Grant was a great leader, but a total disaster as an administrator, primarily because of his trustful nature. His presidency is historically noted for profound corruption and scandals. In private life he failed miserably, both before the war and after it. In 1884, after his final business venture left him penniless, he contracted terminal cancer. His friend, Mark Twain, suggested Grant write his autobiography, which Twain would publish, giving Grant extremely favorable royalties (30%). Faced with impending death, Grant simply refused to die and leave his family in abject poverty. He raced to complete the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, an autobiography Twain described this way:

I had been comparing the memoirs with Caesar‘s Commentaries. …I was able to say in all sincerity, that the same high merits distinguished both books—clarity of statement, directness, simplicity, unpretentiousness, manifest truthfulness, fairness and justice toward friend and foe alike, soldierly candor and frankness, and soldierly avoidance of flowery speech. I placed the two books side by side upon the same high level, and I still think that they belonged there.

Grant died five days after finishing the book. His heirs received royalties of about $450,000, which, in today’s currency, comes to about $12 million.

 

 

Lincoln, with his letters, Shackleton, his loyalty, and Grant, with an indomitable will to provide for his family, personify dedication to others on an heroic scale. Roberto Ceniceros’s column is a poignant reminder that character matters, that a forceful personality can be used for good or ill, that humility is the foundation of empathy.

Donald Trump should start writing letters.