Written by Suvechchha Chapagain
Growing up, when I thought of the term leader or more precisely political leader, the image of a middle-aged man – above 45 years of age who is loud and authoritative and always surrounded by other young and middle-aged men – would involuntarily come to my mind. This is what my young, teenaged mind perceived as a must-have in a leader from news and television. Back then those men who didn’t fit these criteria never appeared as a leader to me – and neither did the aspiring young females who embodied feminine traits. For me, leadership was all about being harsh, rational and hard-headed.
Ironically, I never really saw that leadership approach solve any problems or lead the country on a path of progress and development. Currently, as we see a surge of right-wing politicians across the world, from Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil making a mockery of electoral processes, to Viktor Orbán of Hungary demonstrating hostility towards LGBTIQ+ communities and migrants, my notion of what good leadership looks like has changed dramatically. I believe that empathetic leadership that puts people at the center and ensures inclusion, equality and human rights is the need of the hour. And qualities like politeness, compassion, and humility – which used to seem like shortcomings to me – are now crucial qualities.
On the global front, I see leaders with two kinds of leadership styles making headlines. On the one hand, there are intolerant populist leaders who strive for economic superiority and global influence at all costs, while on the other there are people-centered leaders who focus on inclusion, liberty and justice. Needless to say, the latter exhibit traditionally ‘softer’ traits like humility and compassion which were frowned upon by many global politicians for a very long time, but somehow have lately emerged as some of the best leadership traits. It’s become even more pronounced after the pandemic.
As the pandemic started, the priorities of leaders were divided across two lines. While leaders like Bolsonaro, Donald Trump, and Boris Johnson delayed the response to keep their economy moving, leaders like Jacinda Ardern, Angela Merkel, and Mette Frederiksen quickly announced a nationwide lockdown in their countries. Their urgency temporarily shut the economy but saved the lives of many and prevented them from a public health disaster. Ardern even went on to directly conduct daily Facebook lives from her official handle and crafted kind and empathetic speeches to reassure her citizens.
But although we saw more women leaders showing empathetic leadership during the pandemic, we shouldn’t confuse it with gender. The Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has stood out for his humility towards immigrants and commitment to multiculturalism. Former President of the United States, Barack Obama, is another example, having welcomed gay marriage and effectively assisted with the Ebola epidemic. So the idea that only female leaders are empathetic cannot be true. The examples of female leaders like Indira Gandhi, known for centralising power, and Margaret Thatcher who developed a reputation for her ruthless decisiveness, also shows how women can embrace somewhat patriarchal notions of leadership that focus on power and control. The most recent example is Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, once a Nobel Prize Winner who has refrained from speaking out against atrocities committed towards Rohingya.
The correlation between leadership styles and the casualties rendered by the pandemic has pretty much explained the need for empathetic leadership. In our local context, many leaders of Nepal are also slowly becoming people-centric in their approach. The Deputy Mayor of Dhangadhi Sub-Metropolitan City, Sushila Mishra Bhatta, took the initiative to build women-friendly quarantine centers after the news of women being harassed in quarantines surfaced. As a result, the women from nearby local units and even other provinces came to stay in the centers. Similarly, at a time when health workers were lacking motivation, the mayor of Budhanilkantha Municipality, Uddav Prasad Kharel, decided that the Municipality would provide separate incentives to health workers putting their lives at risk along with the incentives provided by the government. Besides this, there are also examples of leaders like Deputy Mayor of Kohalpur Rural Municipality who offered her office vehicle as an ambulance during the pandemic.
This realization around the need for empathetic leadership is also growing among young politicians. The congress leader, Bishwo Prakash Sharma, hosted a television show, Aaina or ‘Mirror’, that brought forward 26 neglected and marginalized issues from all corners of Nepal. The show helped him establish himself as a young progressive leader amid a political mass and helped him get elected as general secretary of the Nepali congress. The UML leader, Binda Pandey, meanwhile doesn’t shy away from publicly condemning her own party’s decisions when it comes to women and marginalized rights, especially about unequal citizenship laws. She is widely appreciated among civil societies, intellectuals and is invited very often to speak on marginalized issues.
Moreover, this is just the beginning. The need for empathetic leadership is across all levels and sectors. As much as political leaders would benefit from it, there is also a need for it from social vigilantes like Greta Thunberg or Malala Yousufzai who help shape the global agenda and hold governments accountable on pressing issues. For Nepal, it is critically important as we are approaching the next local and federal elections after a year of political uncertainty. Unlike what I saw growing up, we do need more young leaders, but they should also be empathetic and considerate of society’s feelings, not just in policy drafting. The notion of a leader that I imbibed as a child should not be a reality for children of this generation. We need empathetic leaders who respect the diversity of Nepal, respond to public problems justly and ensure inclusion and equality.
*Chapagain is Program Officer at AL Nepal