The art of gracious leadership

Lately I've been thinking about experience. Mr Donald Trump lacks political experience, and the ineptitude caused by his inexperience is evident every day. On the other hand, Mrs Hillary Clinton is nothing if not experienced. Her ship is running smoothly, and yet as her reaction to the e-mail scandal shows once again, there's often a whiff of inhumanity about her campaign that inspires distrust.

So I've been thinking that it's not enough to be experienced. The people in public life we really admire turn experience into graciousness.

Those people, I think, see their years as humbling agents. They see that, more often than not, the events in our lives are perfectly designed to lay bare our chronic weaknesses and expose some great whopping new ones.

Sooner or later life teaches you that you're not the centre of the universe, nor quite as talented or good as you thought. It teaches you to care less about what others think and, less self-conscious, to get out of your own way.

People who are gracious also understand the accuracy of John Keats' observation that "Nothing ever becomes real 'til it is experienced". You can learn some truth out of a book or from the mouth of a friend, but somehow wisdom is not lodged inside until its truth has been engraved by some moment of humiliation, delight, disappointment, joy or some other first-hand emotion. The mistakes just have to be made.

Gracious people are humble enough to observe that the best things in life are usually undeserved - the way the pennies of love you invest in children get returned in dollars later on; the kindness of strangers; the rebirth that comes after a friend's unexpected and overawing act of forgiveness.


Mrs Clinton has experience, but does not seem to have been transformed by it, says the writer. Amid the e-mail scandal, she is repeating the same mistakes she made during the Rose Law Firm scandal two decades ago. Her posture is still brittle, stonewalling and dissembling. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The gracious people one sees in life and reads about in history books - I'm thinking of the all-time greats like Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and (US social activist) Dorothy Day as well as closer figures ranging from Pope Francis to (Czech writer and statesman) Vaclav Havel - turn awareness of their own frailty into sympathy for others' frailty.

Gracious people are humble enough to observe that the best things in life are usually undeserved - the way the pennies of love you invest in children get returned in dollars later on; the kindness of strangers; the rebirth that comes after a friend's unexpected and overawing act of forgiveness. The gracious people one sees in life and reads about in history books turn awareness of their own frailty into sympathy for others' frailty.

As (Colombian writer) Juan Gabriel Vasquez wrote, "Experience, or what we call experience, is not the inventory of our pains, but rather the learnt sympathy towards the pain of others." They are good at accepting gifts, which is necessary for real friendship, but is hard for a proud person to do. They can be surprisingly tenacious in action. Think of Martin Luther King Jr. The grace that flowed into him from friends and supporters and from all directions made him radically hopeful and gave him confidence and tenacity. His capacity to fight grew out of his capacity to receive.

Such people have a gentle strength. They are aggressive and kind, free of sharp elbows, comfortable revealing and being abashed by their transgressions.

The US military used to be pretty good at breeding this type of leader. In the years around World War II, generals often got fired. But they were also given second chances. That is, they endured brutal experiences, but they were given a chance to do something with those experiences and come back stronger and more supple.

They were also reminded very clearly that as members of an elite, they had the responsibilities that come with that station. Today, everybody is in denial about being part of the establishment, believing the actual elite is someone else. Therefore, no one is raised with a code of stewardship and a sense of personal privilege and duty.

Mrs Clinton has experience, but does not seem to have been transformed by it. Amid the e-mail scandal, she is repeating the same mistakes she made during the Rose Law Firm scandal two decades ago. Her posture is still brittle, stonewalling and dissembling. Clinton scandals are all the same. There's an act of unseemly but not felonious behaviour, then the futile drawn-out withholding of information, and forever after the unwillingness to ever come clean.

Experience distils life into instinct. If you interpret your life as a battlefield, then you will want to maintain control at all times. You will hoard access. You will refuse to have press conferences. You will close yourself off to those who can help.

If you treat the world as a friendly and hopeful place, as a web of relationships, you'll look for the good news in people and not the bad. You'll be willing to relinquish control, and in surrender you'll actually gain more strength as people trust in your candour and come alongside. Gracious leaders create a more gracious environment by greeting the world openly and so end up maximising their influence and effectiveness.

It's tough to surrender control, but like the rest of us, Mrs Clinton gets to decide what sort of leader she wants to be. America is desperate for a little uplift, for a leader who shows that she trusts her fellow citizens. It's never too late to learn from experience.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2016, with the headline 'The art of gracious leadership'. Print Edition | Subscribe