A Different Leadership Lens on the Presidential Election

[If you are fed up with politics, I think you, especially, should read this, but I certainly understand if you don’t. For my part, I think we need to keep speaking and listening, and not falling into all the same divisive traps. If we are connected, you may have read an earlier version of this on LinkedIn.]

Our electoral choices, driven in large part by candidate self-selection, have increasingly been reduced to those people who wear the thickest of skins!

This presidential campaign bears it out . . . with one exception I will save for last. My broad-sweep examples:

  • Trump is ready to name-call and go toe-to-toe with anyone.
  • Warren “has a plan” for everything and as with Hilary, men whisper to me that she “scares” them.
  • Bernie’s policy positions like Warren’s are justice-oriented, but both of their styles are to come out in fierce attacks on capitalists who are all “greedy.”
  • Buttigieg kisses his husband (who Pete says is the the big feeler in the family), and/but
  • Klobuchar attacks Mayor Pete as a nerd who’s “memorized a lot of talking points.” She’s pretty tough, too.

They’re all sharp, cerebral.  Not a warm, huggy, love-to-have-a-beer-with-you character in the bunch.

Many of us who work in leadership and organizational development know the power of Myers-Briggs to help us find balance between recurring, personality opposites.* The most commonly referenced dichotomy is between introversion and extraversion. In my analysis of the political world, however, we can learn from how Thinkers predominate over Feelers.  Thinkers are those who naturally prefer to evaluate and decide based on objectivity. They are cool. Ready to attack ideas; it’s not personal; think engineers, lawyers, etc. By contrast, feelers are those who prefer to evaluate based on empathy, compassion and harmony. Too often, feelers opt out, or are driven out of the arena. These women and men who seek harmony are rejected as “too soft,” or they simply never enter what we illustratively describe as: the fray, the battlefield, or the arena, the last, a place where gladiators killed hand-to-hand, face-to-face. Cory Booker’s messages of love and unity fell flat early on. He never got traction. Who’s left?

[This paragraph deserves a whole column, but I have to at least raise it:]  There is a special ‘thinking-vs-feeling curse on women,** as pollster Celinda Lake and others have long proven. Hilary, whose prowess has always been her cutting legal mind and fearlessness, was not cast as “hurt by” and “loyal to” her husband, but as a cold-hearted scheming strategist. Many Rs and Ds, women and men, similarly fear and castigate Nancy Pelosi for her cool directness – tearing up the state of the union speech and seemingly talking down to the President. Kamala Harris’ early rise was perhaps a little too “aggressive,” as she went after Joe Biden. Women have the near-impossible double-whammy that they must be seen as competent and likable. And this double-whammy hits especially hard, because in this age, you have to be strong just to survive. The brutal attacks on Marianne Williamson and the withering SNL shots at Klobuchar and Warren have exploited this vexing dilemma: if you don’t look tough, people think you can’t possibly be “strong,” but if you look too tough, you’re seen by some as an unelectable shrew.

The irony in all of this, with respect to men and women, is that it feels like America could use a heart-centered leader like never before. We could use some heart when it comes both to addressing issues and also to starting a process of healing this divided country. Issues like the coronavirus, rising suicide rates, mass homicides in theaters and schools, the enduring hostility to people of color and women, and the heartbreak of refugees cry – all – for a leader who cares. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had that natural capacity to make you feel their care, as they spoke not just for themselves but for all of us as Americans. And as much as we have said this for decades now, America itself is so deeply divided and could use more listening, more unifying, more kindness.

I have cast my absentee ballot for Joe Biden. I say this not solely, but in no small part because I believe he is the only feeler and the only healer (left) in the field. He’s the only guy who is wired to be so caring or – a thinker might say foolish with his time – that he would make a second visit to Emanuel AME church to worship in the church where people had been gunned down by a white supremacist (the day after the president and the cameras were gone). If you would like to look at the election through a different lens – or if you would just like to see what a feeler looks like, or just want to be inspired as a human being – take a look at Biden at a town hall in South Carolina. A pastor asks him about stuttering and his personal story and Anderson Cooper follows up. It’s worth a watch.

Let me be clear. One of the damaging misuses of Myers Briggs is to think an introvert can’t extravert or in this context that a thinker can’t feel. That is just wrong. And perhaps I have misjudged when I conclude the other candidates naturally prefer thinking. Let me state unequivocally: all these candidates have head and heart. Yet we can see that at least one has a natural and long-developed capacity not to lead with being overwhelmingly analytical, thoughtful and tough, but to innately bring kindness, empathy and pursue harmony.

Sometimes the small things are a window into the big things. My wife has played the parts of Sarah Palin and Elizabeth Warren in debate preparation with Biden. Twelve years ago, when my wife was at debate prep, she took a break to call our oldest child who was turning 18; Joe asked for the phone and personally wished Connor a happy birthday — and dispensed sweet advice about life and love. This year, when my wife’s father passed away and Joe was campaigning in New Hampshire less than two weeks before the primary there, he called her on her cellphone to share his condolences.

For my part, I think there is a wisdom that comes from that kind of heart. It’s a wisdom I think America could use right now. God forbid this pandemic spreads, but if so, then how much more important will it be to have a steady, unifying, and yes loving hand at the wheel?

What say you?! Is there another feeler in the field? If you’re a feeler, does that keep you from running?
(If you have trouble with the comment button, please go here and use the box at the bottom. I want to hear your views. I’m a feeler and/but my skin is thick!)

* A note for the Myers Briggs critics who subscribe to the Big 5 (or OCEAN), as many academics do: What I am saying in terms of the Myers-Briggs schema when it speaks of thinkers and feelers is largely true if you think of these candidates in terms of the Agreeableness scale in those tools. On the spectrum or scale, I suggest that Biden would score highest on Agreeableness.

** Not surprisingly many Myers Briggs studies and Big 5 studies show a strong correlation between female gender and higher scores on Feeling and Agreeableness, respectively. And by the way, this may help explain both why women self-select out and get pushed out of politics.

    • Your wife is the person that keeps me inspired! I loved her TV program! I used to love James Carville but I never hear anything about him anymore. I think VP Biden is definitely the healer for our country. I also believe he can restore the dignity and decorum that has always been at the center of the presidency. A concept that seems to escape Trump!

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