After a tragedy, why leaders must be consolers in chief

In New Zealand and other places with recent crises, politicians who listen and grieve can bring progress.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, center, hugs and consoles a woman in Wellington as she visited Kilbirnie Mosque to lay flowers for the Christchurch attack victims.

When a calamity strikes, leaders must often take on a different role than bold leadership. They must hug victims, console them, and ultimately inspire them with humility and grace to translate tragedy into triumph. This kind of servant-leadership rarely makes the news. But not in recent days.

In Nebraska this week, following floods that devastated more than half of the counties, Gov. Pete Ricketts toured the state to meet victims, volunteers, and first responders. By listening to them, he mirrored a common theme that he found: resilience. “We’ll get through it together and move on,” he said. His trip wasn’t just good politics. It was an empathy tour that proved a force for good.

In Ethiopia, following the March 10 crash of a Boeing jet that killed 157, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed visited the site to support those searching for traces of their loved ones. He expressed a “profound sadness” and sought to bring “healing to friends and families of the bereaved.” He turned their personal grief into a collective grief, thus signaling to the families a wider connection of love. In doing so, he ensured the memories of those lost would be shared by a nation.

Yet perhaps the best example of a leader suddenly transformed into a consoler in chief is Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister.

In the days since a terrorist killed 50 people praying in two mosques, she has shown in actions and words how to embrace the very opposite of the hate the killer stood for.

She donned a headscarf and mourned with the families and friends of the Muslim victims, bringing politicians of other parties with her. She listened more than talked. With genuine tears, she showed solidarity by saying the whole country was “united in grief.” She sent her foreign minister to the home countries of those killed to express sympathies.

She also assured minorities that New Zealand represents diversity, kindness, and compassion. “Those values will not and cannot be shaken by this attack,” she said. In a line now widely known, she said of the victims, “they are us.”

Not all leaders are able to become a voice of moral authority after a catastrophe, showing sincere grief and speaking comforting words. Yet they often are forced to try, reflecting back the mood of a public that seeks a compassionate leader. The desire for redemption and dignity following a crisis demands it.

In 2007, after visiting the tornado-hit town of Greensburg, Kansas, President George W. Bush said, “My mission is to lift people’s spirits as best as I possibly can and to hopefully touch somebody’s soul by representing our country, and to let people know that while there was a dark day in the past, there’s brighter days ahead.”

After the 2012 shooting at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, President Barack Obama said that community “needs us to be at our best as Americans.”

At such times, politicians must be like clergy, full of sympathy, gratitude, and inspiration. When fear is writ large on a place, those fears should not be mirrored. A leader must elevate feelings of pain by first understanding them. Then, out of such fellowship can come spiritual healing and moral progress.

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