Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Leadership, gender, and the Democratic presidential primary

Some leaders aren't very nice people. In fact, they may be downright unpleasant, yet in some contexts necessary or even essential to the wellbeing of human societies. At least that's what I take from this discussion from Sebastian Junger's Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, an exercise in irritating mansplaining. He's nonetheless making a heartfelt attempt to envision how people (mostly men) broken by our wars might find wholeness on their return home.

Amidst various pseudo-anthropological blustering, he describes what researchers learned about leadership in dire circumstances from survivors of the 1958 Spring Hill mine disaster, a collapse which killed 75 miners and left another 99 trapped 13,000 feet underground awaiting a nearly inconceivable rescue.

Almost immediately, certain men stepped into leadership roles. While there was still lamplight, these men scouted open passageways to see if they could escape and tried to dig through rockfalls that we're blocking their path. When they ran out of water, one man went in search of more and managed to find a precious gallon which he distributed to the others. ... a Canadian psychologist who interviewed the miners after the rescue determined that the early leaders tended to lack empathy and emotional control, that they were not concerned with the opinions of others, that they associated with only one or two of the other men in the group, and that their physical abilities far exceeded their verbal abilities. But all of these traits allowed them to take forceful, life-saving action where many men might not.

Once the escape attempts failed, different kinds of leaders emerged. In what researchers termed "the survival period," the ability to wait in complete darkness without giving up hope or succumbing to panic became crucial. Researchers determined that the leaders during this period were entirely focused on group morale and used skills that were diametrically opposed to those of the men who had led the escape attempts. They were highly sensitive to people's moods, they intellectualized things in order to meet group needs, they reassured the men who were starting to give up hope, and they worked hard to be accepted by the entire group.

Without exception, men who were leaders during one period were almost completely inactive during the other; no one it seemed was suited to both roles.

Junger concludes the human species needs both kinds of leadership; it would be hard to argue. But how does this perspective on leadership mesh with a diverse, complex democratic (small "d") system?

Having worked over the years to elect various candidates to office, I have some observations about which ones have what it takes, as well as which ones were losers from the get-go. A successful candidate almost always needs an unwavering, almost obsessive, confidence that she is the person for the job that she seeks. Lacking this, she won't have the drive to put herself on track to win. When I've discussed working for candidates, I've pushed hard on this point; if they don't have that drive, I won't do it. That's much like the personality type of Junger's first sort of leaders, the forceful actors.

And yet, on the other hand, the same candidate has to be able to present herself as there "for the people" -- to engage with the messy mix of anxieties and hopes that people bring to choosing elected leaders. This isn't easy, but politicians who can do it can survive a multitude of failings -- think Bill Clinton for example. That set of traits is more like Junger's second category: the empathetic group caretakers.

And, also obviously (and even Junger knows it), the character traits observed in the Spring Hill story are highly gendered; we expect men to be the first sort and women the second.

But now we come into a Democratic pre-presidential primary period during which a remarkable, talented, diverse field of candidates, both men and women, are presenting themselves as possible leaders of the country. All of them, to be successful, need to have some of the attributes of both kinds of leaders. (We can skip over the fact that the current occupant of the White House has neither.)
Anyone who puts her/himself out there to run for president has to have that obsessive drive which makes a forceful actor. But to what extent do we allow and honor that trait in a woman? Senator Amy Klobuchar is finding out that quite possibly the unfeminine drive that got her where she is today might disqualify her for higher office.

On the other end of the gendered leadership spectrum , Senator Corey Booker is presenting himself as the country's chance to recover what he calls "civic grace":

... "We need to reignite a more courageous empathy,” Booker told a recent Democratic gathering at a downtown arcade here, where his presentation was punctuated by eruptions of video games. “We need to understand that old African saying that if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.”

Do we allow a man to characterize leadership in that way?

I am leaving aside for the moment how genuine Booker or Klobuchar or any of them are in their public presentations. I assume that all the candidates have carefully crafted public personas which the vicissitudes of the campaign may or may not pierce. I intend to enjoy and observe how this fleet of candidates project leadership over the next 8 months or so.

Of what do they think leadership is made? Of what do we the people think leadership is made? Some fraction of our fellow citizens apparently think leadership is all about noisy posturing -- but most of us don't and we're making choices about what we do want in preferred leadership style just as much as we're making choices about policies and programs.

I am not going to engage in the back and forth over Democratic candidates here. Others can do that; there will be lots of venues for that necessary activity. Eventually I'll vote for one here in California. But what matters is that I expect to find some way to work for the election of whichever Democratic candidate emerges from the process. That's #resistance and #hope in 2020.

1 comment:

Mary said...

Interesting thinking post.

It does seem more today the choice is do we want a leader who appears kind and intelligent and truly working for all the citizens best interests fairness and working with the global,community or do we want a strong opinionated more "in your face" type of leader who uses emotions rather than reason and facts? One who maybe feeds our hidden biases or longing for the so called "good old days" rather than the future in an ever growing global and technological world?

It may even be as simple as do want want to look backwards or into the future.

I think what kind of leader we want says a lot about us more than the actual leader.