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About the Author

Hanna Clarys
Student (Antwerp, Belgium)

Current Study: Political Sciences at Antwerp University. Likes: reading, writing and drawing. Activities: discovering the world step by step. Dream: becoming a war journalist somewhere in the distant future...



Published 08th June 2010 - 8 comments - 4169 views -

Probably everyone blames heads of state and world leaders frequently for being insensitive. Singers like for instance P!NK and Boudewijn De Groot - one of my favourite Dutch singer-songwriters (check him out here) - ask presidents how they still manage to sleep at night. But maybe insensitivity is essential to survival in political life. The great thing about being insensitive is that it lets you sleep when others can't.

Think about it: what does it mean to be a leader? It means you have to be able to take decisions that are advantageous for the one and hurt the other. When being sensitive, a leader has two options that will both appear to be negative ones: he can doubt about taking the decision and let it linger in eternity, or he can do the necessary but then toss and turn, torturing himself thinking about the consequences.

I do feel the existing theory should be overturned; emotional intelligence as the single most important thing that distinguishes winners from losers just doesn't hold. Of course emotional intelligence isn't altogether a bad thing. It is lovely in a friend and may arguably be wonderful in a spouse, but insensitive people aren't always dreadful at leading because they can't read emotion and easily succumb to arrogance. That's unfair to say. The insensitive aren't obviously more monstrous than the rest of us, are they?

Then again... maybe they are... How can Israel's prime minister deprive 4 million Palestinians from life-saving supplies? And how is it possible Mugabe has no sense of guilt when spending thousands of dollars on festivities when his people is starving to death? Moreover, these examples don't fit into my model of what it means to be a leader: in what way is letting people die of hunger advantageous for someone and how is Mugabe's birthday party a necessary thing to do? And above all: can this be justified by subscribing it to insensitivity?

I need to nuance my thinking. What is needed in a leader is not to be completely emotionally stupid, but mildly emotionally dyslexic. Maybe Obama and the implementation of the health insurance might fit here; it is not supported by everyone but he will take the decision, and sleep at night without being perceived as a monstrous person.

Evidence for this nuanced theory can be found in the overall working situation of women and especially in the world of high politics; women are supposed to be great at reading emotion, and yet seem unable to make it to the top in any great number. The average man however, is armed with his mild emotional dyslexia, thus able to easily fly through a day in the office (whether it is Oval or not) and sleep like a baby in his bed at night.

And you can't be a leader without catching enough sleep, can you?



Category: Politics | Tags:


  • Giedre Steikunaite on 08th June 2010:

    Interesting thoughts, Hanna. It’s definitely easier to sleep when you are ignorant, insensitive and just don’t really give a damn anyways. Mugabe’s birthday party is an example of just that. And again, best friends greed and vanity also play an important role here.

    I think what a good leader needs first is common sense. But as we know, the problem with common sense is that it is not very common. wink Second, the strength to take hard decisions which would enrage few (the rich in most cases), but would be beneficial in long-term (think sustainability, or even Obama’s health care reform), and also strength to accept that winning another election is in itself not a goal. The real goal is to make life better.

    Last note: Hanna, is your referring to a leader as a “he” only in your second paragraph due to the fact that there are not many women country leaders (although there still are some), or “he” as in “man” which used to mean “human”?

  • Hanna Clarys on 08th June 2010:

    Hi Giedre, thanks for thinking with me!
    First of all: the ‘he’ referal is just because it’s easier than he/she, and it is just a fact that most leaders are men so it’s not really wrong, is it? It reads easier.

    Secondly, you are absolutely right about the common sense and the strength a leader needs, but it doesn’t explain the absence of women in high positions as well as my concept of emotional dyslexia.
    Women often have more common sense than the average man and accepting that winning elections isn’t a main goal is easier for women than it is for men (in my humble perception of the male/female question of course. Probably too bluntly and surely not very nuanced wink).

  • Ruben on 08th June 2010:

    The important question isn’t whether or not a president can catch his sleep at night because of his emotional dyslectism but if this fact (his incapibility to feel with every single citizen) makes him a better leader.

    On the one hand a leader should always look out for his intire nation, which means all of its citizens, and especially the minorities.

    But what has defined both great and horific leaders troughout history is their capability to make a decision that benefits the greater good, whether or not this is (later) justified. Often this comes down to nothing more then a simple comparison of bad vs. worse, or better vs. best. Only a leader that can take a certain distains of his feelings towards the minority that is disadvantaged by his decision will ultimately be able to make such decision.

    Thomas Jefferson, one of the great leaders of his time, has a beautiful quote on this subject:

    “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”

  • Andrea Arzaba on 09th June 2010:

    Hanna…your point is very interesting…until when a politician should care or not care? Talking about “emotions”. I think it should be more of a justice issue, to see and analyze if thins are correct and fare for people, not only just emotions and feelings. Maybe empathy should enter here too….ahhh but when will this type of situations change with politicians??

  • Elsje Fourie on 10th June 2010:

    It’s true…sometimes being a good leader means making the kind of difficult decisions many people are unable to.  At the very least, it means being able to put up with a LOT of criticism, and having faith in your beliefs - because you can never please everyone.  And I think you’re right that women often do want to please everyone, and need to train themselves to be thick-skinned if they want to enter positions of leadership.  At the same time, of course, leaders need to listen to their people and cannot blindly push through programmes that do not take changing circumstances into account…so it’s a very difficult balance.

  • Clare Herbert on 12th June 2010:

    Interesting piece, Hanna. I think that there are many other reasons why women do not make it to the top of the political sphere. Family commitments, lack of support, the continuance of the ‘old mans club’ of politics.

    I think the best leaders are emotional people who can FEEL the impact of their decisions and still make the best moral judgement.

  • Hanna Clarys on 12th June 2010:

    Hi Clare, of course there are many other reasons why women don’t get there that often, mine is just one of them.

    And I agree with all the comments that emotions and empathy have to be mixed into a leader’s decision-making, which should also be moral, objective and always a choice for bad in stead of worse and best in stead of good -as Ruben puts it so nicely.

  • Clare Herbert on 14th June 2010:

    @ Hanna: exactly. You’ve highlighted just one aspect of the ‘glass ceiling’ perfectly.

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