An ethical response to crisis

A few months ago, I blogged about the tragic events of the Christchurch shootings and the impressive way in which the Prime Minister of New Zealand led the crisis. Her commitment to kindness, empathy and well being were resolute despite the unfolding adversity and were clearly a testament to her ability to lead in such circumstances. Those ethical virtues were also fundamental to her government’s response to the crisis as well as the underpinning premise by which the broader community responded. In short, I found New Zealand’s Prime Minister, her government and the community’s national response impressive.

Leaders such as Ms Ardern are clearly inspirational. They impress us for a variety of reasons not the least of which is that they exemplify the very ethics that we would desire to see far more often in our leaders generally. They become so impressive that we sanctify the leader for their courage and commitment to the very ethics that we find so desirable. In other words, we see them on some level as holy, blessed, event saintly. It is understandable because to inspire is to be “in spirit” with another. And to be in spirit implies a holiness, whether you are religious or not.

To sanctify or not to sanctify

A great friend and mentor of mine is a former Australian Army Padre who has worn the cloth of a Religious Minister for over 40 years and he recently had some sage advice about sanctification. He said to me that the one thing he spent his professional life avoiding was to be sanctified simply because he was a man of religion. He knew the downside. See ultimately, those we sanctify we end up demonising. History is full of such examples. Martin Luther King is but one. Often, they speak to or exemplify truths that not only do we desire, but also make some people uncomfortable, and for a select few, very uncomfortable. Uncomfortable enough to kill.

A couple of weeks ago I opened a prominent Australian daily newspaper to discover an article that called into question the capacity for the ethics as exemplified by Ms Ardern to be effective in delivering on political outcomes. Not an unreasonable question of course in the world of a political leader operating within a democratic society. However, there was an undertone. That undertone suggested that the Prime Minister would need to do more and exhibit further evidence of her ethical premise in order to be viewed as successful. In other words, the demonising had begun.

What is in others, is in also ourselves

So, let me give you another perspective. When leaders such as Ms Ardern or Martin Luther King or any other prominent leader acts virtuously, rather than seeing them on some level as ‘holy’ or ‘blessed’ (which of course they may well be), we should consider them as an exemplification of our own capacity to exhibit similar ethical behaviours. See, ethics such as kindness, empathy and well-being are virtues that we re-cognise. That is, earlier in our lives we had an original cognition of say kindness that, when exemplified by someone else’s words and actions, we relate to. We recognise (that is, re-cognise) kindness because it sits within our mental continuum. It is already present within our Minds.

So rather than view it only as an external attribute of another person and from which we want to see more from them we shift the premise of our thoughts to realise that they are simply showing us what we are already capable of.  

Put another way, if we place the entire burden of kindness onto one particular person such as the Prime Minister and fail to realise that they are exemplifying what we are capable of then we will inevitably end up in disappointment! Instead, we are likely to demonise them when they don’t live up to our expectations or stretch us beyond our comfort zone towards a greater truth that we may not be ready to hear.

It is simply both unfair and unreasonable to expect another person to carry the burden of our need for virtue. Yes, they can exemplify it, but no they cannot be sanctified in the vane hope that they will do even more to appease our desire to see more virtue in the world. If we want more virtue in our world (and let’s face it, who doesn’t’) then we need to take their lead and think, speak and act in our own right.

We are all capable of great things

So next time someone inspires us, evokes feelings of joy, inspiration or any other experience that typifies happiness, understand that whilst they may well be exhibiting the very ethics that we admire, they are also showing us what we are capable of. And whilst we may not perceive that we have either the confidence nor the competence to think, speak or act accordingly, we will never get better and our circumstances will never get better if we don’t at least try.

So, leaders such as Ms Ardern are indeed impressive and they show great courage in exemplifying the best of who we are capable of being and to that end maybe to sanctify them is okay. But to demonise them is not. To demonise them is to admit our own moral and ethical failure to step up in our own lives and take their lead. If they have the courage and the conviction to be out in front advocating virtue, then the least we can do is not to make them wrong. Instead we can be grateful and honour their courage by putting into practice those very things we so desire to see more of in the world that they show us through their leadership.

Finally, such leaders also give us a chance to be leaders of virtue in our own right and thus inspire others. As I have mentioned before in previous blogs, if you are in any position of influence over another person, whether it be in formal leadership in politics, organisations or associations, or informal leadership such as parenting, mentoring or simply having greater agency than those around you, take the opportunity to exemplify what it is you wish to see in others. Be that leader that shows others not only what you are capable of, but what they are capable of too! Perhaps then we may, thought by thought, word by word, and action by action, lead to world to a better place than we currently find ourselves in!

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