On Leadership & Compassion for Others

Ervin Staub, PhD

Sometimes, the universe offers a remedy in unexpected ways. I’ve been upset and troubled by the Trump administration’s policy to allow border agents to forcibly separate children from their parents. All my mental health training in the need for a secure, safe and trustworthy environment in raising children opposes this unconscionable policy. But what to do; how to make a difference?

As luck would have it, I’ve been on a mission to collect ceu credits. The timing was perfect to listen to Ervin Staub, Ph.D, Professor of Psychology Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, and Founding Director of its PhD concentration in the Psychology of Peace and Violence. His topic: The Leader & The Led: How the Nature of the Leader Affects Organizations and Societies.

Citing years of extensive hands on research about German Nazism, Rwanda, prison life and bullying, he contrasted destructive and constructive leadership, followed by his insights on what people like myself can do to make a difference.

Neither the vast audience nor I were surprised to learn that Trump’s path fits many elements of destructive leadership.  “Leaders are only leaders if they can attract followers,” Staub began. Underscoring the word “vision,” which, to my mind is the difference that makes a difference, he framed how destructive visions are born in response to difficult situations in society. They arise  in the ferment of decline, political chaos, societal change and ongoing conflict.

Staub stated that because addressing the real problems are difficult and/or leaders choose not to address such issues (the poor track record of Congress re: healthcare, dreamers, immigration), a destructive leader elevates himself over others by claiming that one’s own group is not responsible for the problems. Trump blames others—Democrats, Obama, Jeff Sessions, NAFTA, you name it—and with it, succeeds in cohering his group.

The self-serving elite join in while bystanders, at the risk of complicity, do nothing,he said.

He warned about the harmful practice particulars of destructive leadership—the call for loyalty, the thrust towards patriotism, the use of rejection or punishing behaviors—to encourage compliance rather than concern for all.

Destructive leadership is where we are today in the matter of refugees and border security. I, for one, cannot be a quiet bystander when, as a mental health professional, I know that without careful assessment and placement, monitoring and follow up, wrenching children from the security of family can only result in damaging effects over their lifetime.

Staub left us with the following question: How can I be an active, effective bystander who contributes to constructive change? In what domain will I act, what will I do to influence leaders, followers, the social world around me?

For myself, I write to engage with the intent of distilling and offering constructive information. I reach out to my representatives re: critical issues, support multiple causes, and for the future, I plan to explore Staub’s interview titled Bystandership—One Can Make a Difference—published in his book, The Roots of Goodness and Resistance to Evil.








6 thoughts on “On Leadership & Compassion for Others

  1. sheila kempler

    I agree 100% with your thoughts and hope we make a positive societal change as American
    citizens who believe love, empathy, and tolerance are the path to peace.


    1. fayewriter Post author

      Sheila, thanks. Would that your hope will come to fruition and that compassion will take root and grow.

  2. Patricia Rogers

    Faye…once again you’ve written a most thoughtful piece. The most recent news about separating children and their parents entering the US has been so disturbing. Steve and i were driving to dinner listening to the news and he said, “what is this Nazi Germany now”. Very frightening but feel inspired to follow in your footsteps and become more proactive by reaching out to our representatives! Thanks for your many inspiring pieces!

    1. fayewriter Post author

      Pat, thanks for your affirmative response. Yes, I had the same association as Steve and it is so disturbing, as you and I both know, what can be ahead for these children and their parents. So sad and avoidable, that’s the hardest part. Helplessness doesn’t sit well with me. This is an issue that needs attention.

  3. Rosemary

    I like how this essay raises a question everyone might face–In what domain will I act?–and how the writer later frames a simple statement of her own purpose, where she finds relevance: “I write to engage.”

    1. fayewriter Post author

      I like how you distill the essence of my message to one pithy and discerningly phrased sentence. Thanks you, Rosemary!

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