Knowing the People You Lead


In his Letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul recognizes an important paradox.  On the one hand, he says: “Bear one another’s burdens.” On the other hand: “All must carry their own loads.” 

There are some problems and challenges in life that we’ll never be able to manage or to endure unless other people help us; but, there really other things we have to do for ourselves.  Essayist Garret Keizer once said  that Paul’s dual admonition to bear one another's burdens and to bear one's own burden” points toward both “self-reliance and social responsibility,” what Keizer called “the Republican heart and the Democratic heart in their purest forms.” Getting the balance between them right is, as he said, “the crux of any sustainable community. Neither value makes sense without the other, nor can it be fulfilled without the other. The trick is to get them to kiss. The trick is to create a society in which the privilege of disposable income is not contingent on the existence of disposable people.”  This, he said, is “the primary task of any mature politics.” It depends, to a great extent, on leaders who will actually listen to “the people they supposedly represent.” [in Harper's Magazine, Notebook (April 2009)]

Discerning which burdens people can carry for themselves and which they need our help in carrying depends on our knowing them well enough to see them compassionately and realistically.  Leaders should know about the real-world challenges the owners and managers of companies, corporations and family firms face: global competition, rising healthcare costs, finding skilled employees, skittish and demanding investors, and a complex regulatory environment. 

But it’s not enough for leaders to listen to those who are in charge.  They also must take the time and care time to understand the struggles of the poor, the dreams of the dispossessed, and the hopes of the marginalized.  If our leaders don’t listen to those on the bottom, they will make a mess of things, because they will have failed to do what love demands we all do: get involved in the messy and hard details of other people’s lives, including the lives of the poor, before making rules, policies and statements which affect them.