This piece is part of an ongoing On Leadership series featuring the voices of young writers and students of leadership. This month we asked them to share what our current generation of leaders could learn from the next generation.
As David Foster Wallace noted in 2000 while following John McCain in the GOP primaries, “It has to make you stop and think about how starved voters are for just some minimal level of genuineness in the men who want to ‘lead’ and ‘inspire’ them.” Twelve years later, Americans still yearn for leaders who recognize and reflect the humanity of those they choose to serve.
To this end, the current generation of leaders would do well to emulate the leadership capabilities of young people—namely, our ability to empathize. I mean not just acknowledging another’s plight, but feeling connected to it.
Our generation seems particularly equipped to do this. One need go no further than Facebook to see the way we share our frustrations, mutually reinforce our desire for affection and put our own vulnerable humanity on full display. We are perfectly comfortable conceding fallibility. Hey, we have even been celebrating it since Britney Spears pop-glorified the lament, “Oops, I did it again.”
We share our weaknesses as comfortably as we share our strengths. And more importantly, we have crafted a generation’s worth of identities on this very notion of sharing.
Today’s leaders tend to describe the world in two-dimensional abstractions drawn from data that best support their arguments. As young people, we prefer to define our worlds with ample topography and color, adapting our perceptions when we encounter the unknown. We characterize ourselves not by what we had no choice in—like our race, gender, age and perhaps even class—but rather by what we do choose, such as our friends, our work and even our favorite music.
Simply put, young people see the individual as a fluid mosaic, not a static demographic.
This has created a generation of connectedness. And this empathy lets us speak truths that transform the world. Whether international movements for freedom are inspiring popular demonstrations through social media, or students are combating bullying at local schools by publishing and promoting tolerance toolkits online, our compassion is giving way to effective leadership.
As we make the generational shift from thinking about where the lines are drawn between us to where the lines connect, it is important to note the regressive returns of a policy built on a divided notion of identity. As politicians squabble over whether companies are humans, fetuses are living organisms and Palestinians are an invented people, Americans continue to be unemployed, our maternal care falters and our armed forces meet greater resistance abroad.
Knowledge of how individuals identify themselves and their worlds should inform policy, not be the sole subject of our political discussions and decisions. A focus on issues like inequality should replace the semantics suffocating progress in our political systems.
If Salman Rushdie is correct when asserting that, “redescribing a world is the necessary first step towards changing it,” then even the distinctions with which we choose to define ourselves and our surroundings may transform what is a disheartening disconnect between young and old into a potential opportunity for collaboration and progress.
Empathy, by revealing to us the significance of a struggle, implores us to set aside our nominal differences and work together. To address our common concerns, we do not need austerity or stimulus. We need humanity.
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