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.