Leadership with feelings

MST column published 03 March 2014

This Aquino administration and the President, in particular, have on many occasions been accused of having a deficit in empathy and compassion.  

Last month, the President refused to speak with representatives of the survivors of super typhoon Yolanda, who in their desperation trooped to Malacanang to demand action from the government in terms of rehabilitation and reconstruction. And yet he had time to receive a beauty queen in his office.

Some of the members of his team called the protesting survivors terrorists and destabilizers.

And who can forget the statement of Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel Roxas – “bahala na kayo sa buhay nyo” -- even if he insists the video has been spliced and his words taken out of context?  
Remember too how the President left Tacloban in a huff – even when he had said he would stay until he was satisfied with the relief operations – when the Supreme Court struck down the Priority Development Assistance Fund as unconstitutional.  

The accusations of lack of compassion are not limited to events occasioned by natural disasters.

Early on in his administration, for instance, after a dismissed police officer held Chinese tourists hostage and an unsuccessful rescue operation was not able to prevent a bloody ending to the crisis, the President inspected the site and wore a strange, silly smile on his face. This is not the facial expression of a leader who is supposed to be upset that such a tragedy can unfold under his watch. It did not help that he has consistently refused to recognize the national government’s role in the tragedy.

There is also the issue of his predecessor, whom he continues to blame for everything that goes wrong in the government. Former President Gloria Arroyo is on hospital arrest on charges of plunder and electoral sabotage. Many say that the evidence against her in these cases is, at best, hearsay.  But as the cases take forever to be put together, Mrs. Arroyo battles a debilitating ailment that has caused her to lose weight and physical strength.

Many political figures have dropped by to visit her but Mr. Aquino has not reached out at all. In fact, he has allowed the clipping of some of her small privileges like family visits and sunning hours.

Another issue is the killing of journalists. The Philippines has gained notoriety as the third most dangerous country for journalists in 2013, after only Syria and Iraq.  And yet, the Palace has expressed doubt on the seriousness of the problem and its implications on press freedom and democracy.

The list goes on.


Traditionally, we may think of a good leader as a man or woman of steel, projecting strength and confidence all the time. Any other approach and he or she may not be able to stomach criticism, adversity and the repercussions of unpopular decisions even as these may eventually be good for the country.

True, any leader must be a strong leader. The office demands that much. But that does not preclude him or her from being a “softie” as well. In fact, a leader needs to show he or she is also capable of feeling what other people feel, seeing things from another’s point of view.  

According to The Free Dictionary, empathy is “identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings, and motives.” Compassion, on the other hand, is defined as “a deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it.” Hence, empathy is being able to place oneself in the shoes of another, while compassion refers to a desire to do something about the empathy one feels.
People identify best with a leader who knows exactly what they are going through and are one with them. 
Having a compassionate leader gives people reason to be optimistic even in the face of loss and tragedy. This is because they know they will never be left out to dry – hindi sila ilalaglag.

Empathy and compassion are not to be confused with populism – more like a calculated move to endear oneself to the people for election purposes. Politicians/ candidates kissing babies, eating with their hands among workers, shaking the hands of vendors in a wet market, dancing to popular tunes  – all these are superficial acts that need to be substantiated by words and actions that will convince people of their sincerity.  
In an article for Forbes Magazine, Jayson Boyers says that “for (business) leaders to experience success, they need to not just see or hear the activity around them, but also relate to the people they serve.”

The President’s critics say he finds it difficult to connect with ordinary people because he was born with the proverbial silver spoon and has never had to work a day in his life to earn a living. If this is true, is Mr. Aquino then a “victim” of his circumstances? Can empathy and compassion be learned?

Nobody is in a position to say whether one is capable of empathy and compassion except the person himself. Still, words and actions give helpful clues. So far, what we have been seeing are clues pointing to the administration’s inability to get out of its self-righteous, high-moral-ground, us-versus-them mode.

While it is unfair to say that our chief executive is not capable of empathy and compassion, he should be advised to start speaking and acting as if he cared deeply about people -- whether or not they are allies. He is, after all, leader of the entire country, not just of the Liberal Party or those who agree with him. With only two years until a new administration takes over, the President may want to leave the legacy of being a leader who truly felt for his people, whatever their stripes.

It would be a really good thing if he means it, too.