The late René Préval has the distinction of being the only president of Haiti to serve two full terms. This is no small feat, given that coup d’etat and assassinations are often inflicted on presidents who clash with the ruling classes.
I have always marveled at Préval’s ability to read people, his political instincts and his ability to survive despite the enormous challenges Haiti faced under his rule. I didn’t know he showed some potential for real leadership.
During his first term, Préval was seen as a gatekeeper securing the presidency of his eventual successor Jean Bertrand Aristide, and accomplished little. During his second term, Préval showed unprecedented survival instincts by keeping friend and foe off guard. He was known to be a tireless tenant who promised nothing concrete but did not reject a request out of hand.
By most accounts, he failed to move the country forward, especially after one of Haiti’s greatest moments – the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. Instead, Préval shrunk and failed to rise to the occasion.
Groups need effective negotiation skills
When I think back to Préval’s reign and his style of leadership, I often think that he was the Bouki to others playing Ti Malice – these two mischievous characters from Haitian folklore. Although Bouki is the dumbest, he ends up winning the most often.
Of all the recent presidents of Haiti, I have been most fascinated by Préval for many reasons. For one, I shared a striking physical resemblance to the former president and during his tenure, people stopped to stare at me everywhere I went. “No relationships,” I said to break the ice, as people laughed after hearing those words from me.
The assassination of President Jovenel Moïse has once again propelled Haiti’s leaders into the spotlight, tasking them with resolving a political impasse that requires a skill I’m not sure they possess. Since last summer’s murder, political and civil society leaders have attempted to synthesize a dozen disparate agreements into a cohesive roadmap that outlines Haiti’s economic and social development.
At this critical time, Haitian leaders must develop exceptional relationships with each other and with the Haitian people they claim to lead. However, for this to happen, these leaders must adopt the six characteristics of good leadership:
- Be more fully yourself.
- Be prepared to be vulnerable.
- Trust that your disclosures will not be used against you.
- Be honest with each other.
- Manage conflict productively.
- Be committed to each other’s growth and development.
To be clear, these ideas are not mine. These are the guidelines underpinning a course taught at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business called Interpersonal dynamics. The course is one of the most popular courses at the august institution and is affectionately referred to as the “Touchy Feely” course.
I was fortunate to have attended three sessions of “Touchy Feely” as part of the Sulzberger Executive Leadership Program at Columbia University this year. These conferences — led by Carole Robin, Ph.D. — were enlightening.
I was blown away because what we learned in the Robin sessions goes against everything I thought I knew about negotiations and relationship building. The idea of opening yourself up and making yourself vulnerable in a relationship is like sheep walking willingly to the gallows. It’s suicidal. But I think it works because leaders need to be vulnerable and empathetic to be successful.
Robin further develops leadership and how to build exceptional relationships with family, friends and colleagues in her book, “Connect” co-written with David Bradford, lead developer of “Touchy Feely” popular with MBA students aspiring to join the ranks of Silicon Valley sharks.
The book is packed with relevant scenarios and proven ideas for people looking to develop meaningful relationships. Since meeting Robin in January, I have twice had the opportunity to apply some of her advice in my personal and professional life. I was able to navigate complex and complicated situations that I have botched in the past when faced with similar situations.
I allowed myself to be vulnerable and have empathy for the other person I was dealing with, and was able to resolve the conflict to the satisfaction of both parties. In the process, I have built some exceptional relationships.
A new and better way to lead in today’s world
As Haitian leaders continue their negotiations, I urge them to think about empathy, vulnerability, and feedback. They must step out of their comfort zone and try new theories that have been successfully applied in university labs and in real life. For too long, Haitian negotiation tactics have been zero-sum. It doesn’t work because even if you win, you can’t share zero.
This all or nothing mentality is exactly what we need to get rid of. Haiti is at a crossroads right now and it has been left on its own to solve unsolvable problems. However, if we trust and sympathize with each other, we can find common ground and find a meaningful path forward.
The country faces difficult obstacles. The police are no match for the well-armed gangs that have essentially cut off Port-au-Prince, the capital, from the rest of the country. People are in despair and are heading out to sea in rickety boats the likes of which have not been seen in 30 years.
The state is in dire straits and the country finds itself in a self-imposed embargo as it is too unstable for tourists or the diaspora to visit or do business. These are times unprecedented even by Haiti’s volatile history. Solutions must therefore be bold and innovative.
This means that Haitian leaders must develop soft skills. Among the first is empathy. They must not only show empathy when dealing with opposition political parties, but they must show empathy especially towards the masses of the Haitian people who share a deep sense of despair.
The past three years have been exceptionally dark for the people of Haiti. They need to feel heard and that their concerns and aspirations are taken into account. I believe the Haitian state is weak because officials have rarely equalized the population for the most part making false promises knowing they have no ability or intention to deliver on those promises.
When Préval reluctantly ran for a second term, he told the nation bluntly that he had returned to Marmelade to lead his agricultural cooperative and was not seeking to return to politics. He promised that if elected he would be industrious and honest.
But he stressed to the people that he didn’t want to be harassed for delivering something he couldn’t. I just wish Préval had governed with the same honesty he promised the people.