The Character of Our Leaders: Important or Irrelevant?

                  The Character of Our Leaders: Important or Irrelevant?

Do you think that – policies aside– the leader of a democratic country should be a person of decency and integrity, an upstanding citizen, a Mensch?

Need he/she be ethical, respectful and knowledgeable, an inspiring role model whom youth (and their parents) might wish to emulate? Should he be more committed to the country and its citizens than to himself?

In an ideal world I would wish to answer ”Yes” to these questions. Some might think I’m visualizing an impossible dream, and sadly, in the “real world,” they may well be right: It would indeed be difficult to a political leader who embody all those qualities.

To further complicate matters, we know that being a model human being doesn’t necessarily guarantee exceptional leadership abilities, and that a leader who is an indecent scoundrel might accomplish some positive developments for his/her country.

Personal misbehaviors or malfeasances, usually sexual, drug-related, violent or fraudulent in nature, occur in many careers in the public eye, like sports, business, entertainment or law. When idolized celebrities and heroes are exposed and humiliated, they suddenly fall from grace.

Their exposure is inevitably followed by public gossip, media censuring or erasure from careers. Their virtual condemnation in the court of public opinion can even lead to actual conviction in courts of law.

I make no excuses for their personal faults or egregious behaviors, and if warranted they should indeed be punished. But the truth is, they “signed on” to be extraordinarily talented at their craft, art form, sport or profession. They served our needs for stars, they entertained and even thrilled us, and we in turn adored them for their outstanding successes. But they did not sign on” to be the upstanding role models we’d like them to be, which partly explains our disappointment and derision when they fail that test.

Butelected officials and political leaders are in a different category, and must be held to a higher standard of personal behavior.They did sign on by seeking public offices with inherent civic responsibilities.

Citizens expect their leaders to merit their respect and want to feel that they have their welfare at heart and are decent individuals. That many are found wanting is not a partisan issue, as leaders with personal failings come from both the Left and the Right sides of the political spectrum.

President Trump is adored by his base and severely criticized by others. It’s clear, however, that much of the invective directed at him is regarding his personal incivilities and social behaviors. These characteristics are on vivid display 24/7in his public appearances, speeches, interviews, behaviors and of course, his tweets. (I am not here discussing his policies or his psychological status, both widely discussed in the media).

He has talked about grabbing women inappropriately and disparaged their appearances and abilities. He has demeaned his critics and misrepresented facts or accomplishments. He’s made sympathetic remarks about violent racists and neo-Nazis, mocked a physically challenged reporter and insulted the father of a fallen soldier.

He’s encouraged violence against the media and hecklers in his rallies, and espoused populist nationalism. He disdains reading or learning about history, diplomacy, or science.

       And Yet: He remains buoyant and popular with his fervent base which adores his angry authoritarian monologues. The more they hear of his misdeeds and witness his delight in disparaging his “enemies,” the more they are drawn to him.

Aggressive outbursts by leaders are common in many regimes on the Left and Right. We are now seeing similar angry populism voiced by autocrats currently in power or rising “heirs-apparent” in many other countries.

Authoritarian personalities inevitably provoke conflicting opinions, intensely praised by supporters and berated by detractors. When people observe the same media excerpts, their takeaways differ dramatically, depending on their affinity or revulsion for the leader. They can observe identical clips but have vehemently opposed ideas about what they saw and heard. The classic film “Rashomon” by the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa vividly showed people who experienced the same events recalled very different accounts of what they saw and experienced.

Perceptions are subject to manipulation and intense beliefs can overcome visible facts. My research on true-believing members of cults showed that zealous adulation of a beguiling leader can radically distort perceptions, skew cognitions and sway emotions. It is no mere coincidence that messianic cult leaders and demagogues both attract people who are dissatisfied with their lives and searching for answers.

When people burdened by seemingly insurmountable pressures and financial difficulties live in the midst of ostentatious wealth, and when they feel insecure with rapid technological and social changes, they are understandably intensely frustrated. And when they is no relief in sight and they envision their dire situations only worsening, they become demoralized, despairing and desperate.

They are then particularly vulnerable to the charismatic words of a magnetic leader who voices his deep sympathies and gives credibility to their misery and rage. He/she captures their roiling energy, borne of frustration, and empathetically “plays it back” to them.

The charismatic leader shows his audiences that he totally “gets” their concerns, and he shares their agitation and anger. There are always the “others” at home and abroad whom he/she blames for their suffering, and he/she promises to punish or expel them, and to lead his/her followers onto the clear path to a better life and personal happiness.

These promises feel like “manna from heaven,” incredibly generous gifts bestowed on them by a truly visionary leader.

I now ask you:

Which personal characteristics of a leader are more likely to appeal to intensely frustrated and threatened citizens: Integrity-Civility-Reason-Benevolence, or Anger-Aggression-Authoritarianism-Nativism?

And more personally, which kind of leader is important to you and your children?

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