Our national leaders need a little Psychology 101. They seem to be lacking an understanding of basic human behavior. During the recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for the appointment of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, some of the senators said they wanted judges who “set aside personal biases and prejudices to decide cases in an impartial manner.” Even more stringent, they implied that they wanted judges who were not influenced by their culture and values and were devoid of empathy. Apparently, they don’t want human beings on the Supreme Court. It’s not possible for people to form opinions, legal or otherwise, without being influenced by culture and values, and empathy is an essential characteristic of any competent leader.
President Obama, in responding to questions from Business Week about his leadership, said:
…my most important job is to get the right people in the right place, give them the freedom to innovate and to think creatively about problems, hold them accountable for results, and make sure that they are cooperating with each other and communicating with each other on an ongoing basis.
So far, so good. But then he goes on to say:
I've always insisted on making sure we are equipping ourselves with the best evidence, the best data, the best information, that it's real-time, and that we don't ignore information just because it's not convenient or doesn't conform with what our working hypothesis might have been. We're constantly trying to make sure we're open to changing our minds about issues.
He, too, seems to want super-human staff. All people tend to ignore information that doesn’t conform to the way they view the world. This is part of being human. So Obama has a huge task ahead of him if he wants himself and his staff to behave differently.
All people form opinions and make decisions within the framework of a personal world view that is shaped by culture and values, and what information they choose to ignore and what information they choose to accept. The challenge for leaders is to embrace this aspect of themselves and to be continually aware of how values and beliefs are affecting their decisions.