This is a guest post from keynote speaker Scott Monty. We noticed Monty’s comment on the News & Guts post about Donald Trump’s bizarre encounter with Iraqi Nobel laureate Nadia Murad was resonating with readers. He said the president “is devoid of empathy and compassion.” We asked him to expand on that thought using his expertise in human nature. Here are his thoughts:
We expect great things from our presidents. In some ways, they need superhuman capabilities, as they toil long hours and try to extract solutions and compromises in policies domestic and foreign with allies and foes around the world.
But at the same time, we expect them to be regular human beings—or at least to be like the people we aspire to be, or like us on our best days. Our hope is that they lead by example and exhibit traits that represent the upstanding and inspirational attributes from leaders past and present:
Decency. Honesty. Integrity. Empathy.
The President’s job is one of the most stressful and demanding positions in government, requiring briefing books, expert advisors, and hours of policy discussions. But none of those is necessary to show empathy or integrity or decency. Either you have those or you don’t.
Sadly, in his press conference with religious refugees earlier this week, President Trump was completely devoid of empathy. At least to this observer.
When Iraqi Yazidi refugee and Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad spoke to the president, his body language said everything. He remained seated at his desk, surrounded by people (for the photo op, no doubt) as if he were seated on a throne.
Each of the three previous presidents would have been on their feet—not seated, like in a throne—facing Murad, and offering some kind of reassuring condolences, perhaps even hugging her—as any person with an ounce of empathy would. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama each had the natural capacity to understand the pain of other people, and they acted on it.
Trump didn’t even face Murad for the entirety of her statement and was unable to simply maintain eye contact with her. He seems to have missed out on three of Dale Carnegie’s seminal rules in How to Win Friends and Influence People: become genuinely interested in other people, be a good listener, and make the other person feel important—and do it sincerely.
His questions were about where her dead parents were, and how she possibly could have won the Nobel Prize (something his predecessor also did, which must burn him up with jealousy), and a self-aggrandizing statement about the region (“I know the area very well”). No expression of sympathy, solidarity, or compassion.
He does seem to have empathy for his supporters, though. He understands that they’re motivated by fear and anger, and those are powerful weapons in communication. He courts this with every tweet (or so I hear—Trump blocked me two years ago after reminding him that Republicans swore an oath to the Constitution, not to him personally). He knows how to exploit things for his own benefit. And the social web does an effective job of spreading fear and anger.
But when it comes to recognizing other people’s emotions and using emotional information to guide thinking and speaking, it’s simply not there in Trump.
Doris Kearns Goodwin looked at what drove some critical decisions of Presidents Lincoln, Theodore, and Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson in Leadership: In Turbulent Times. What she found was a series of crises and life events that somehow had transformed them: from the unsure country lawyer, the upper-class and out-of-touch New Yorkers, and the ambitious career politician to true leaders who were able to relate to their fellow countrymen at a raw emotional level. Each was guided by principles, a vision for fairness, and family who genuinely loved them and took care of them in times of crisis.
We’ve always looked to our leaders to be examples to our children. But when the President of the United States lacks the very basics of the human condition—decency, empathy, integrity—where are our children supposed to find their role models?
An America without empathy, an America that becomes so self-interested and self-absorbed, is a dangerous place. It breeds fear, anger and hate, and tells our citizens that the only thing that matters is things of material comfort. As this presidency continues, I hear Trump supporters giddily focusing on the stock market numbers and the jobs being created, at the same time that we’re witnessing more callous and uncaring leadership from Republicans (ref. healthcare, 9/11 victim fund, and border scenario).
Well, we’ve seen what the gilded life of Donald Trump has wrought: someone who brags about his wealth, his holdings, and his crowd size (among other things), and a complete inability to experience the world through the eyes of others and act with empathy.
Make no mistake: empathy matters. It matters in our leaders and it matters in every single one of us.
This post contains opinion and analysis
Scott Monty is a keynote speaker. He uses his knowledge of historic literature, philosophy and poetry, together with his ability to trend-spot to show audiences that the key to our future is in understanding timeless wisdom about human nature.