Trying Times Reveal Priorities


Trying Times Reveal Priorities

Robert McKee, a lecturer and expert on writing and storytelling, once said “True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure — the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.” Much in the way a character’s choices on the big screen or in the pages of a book reveal much about his or her internal makeup, the responses of our world leaders during this public health crisis is bringing to the surface what often are unsaid priorities that drive political and business decisions. One only needs to look to the Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress to see what each side values and prioritizes.

Both sides of the isle are taking action to help the situation, as evidenced by the COVID-19-related legislation they’ve come together to pass, but each side prefers a very different approach to helping people. For Republicans, helping people often is an indirect affair in which they first help businesses and other institutions to then help the economy. Democrats, in contrast, tend to favor direct help to individuals in the form of strengthening social safety nets and financial assistance. Republican rhetoric on the relative importance of avoiding an economic crash and democratic discussion of the need for universal basic income are current examples of each side’s values in action. This debate was illuminated further in early April by The Economist. Reacting to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s assertion that “we’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life,” Economist Editor in Chief Zanny Minton-Beddoes argued that while this is a noble idea and a rallying cry for many, “a dollar figure, or at least some way of thinking systematically, is precisely what leaders will need to see their way through the harrowing times to come.” Regardless of which side you come down on, both approaches to helping people rely on the recipients of any assistance to do the right thing for themselves and the people around them. The downside of helping business, for example, is that we’re relying on individual business leaders, who all have different priorities and values themselves, to reinvest in their workforce in ways that promote its well-being rather than raising executive salaries or buying back stock as we’ve seen the airline industry do in recent years with public funds.

There isn’t an easy answer to be had here, although humanistic leadership development represents a key enabler, albeit as part of a longer game, for ensuring people receive the help they need regardless of how they receive it. Developing leaders who more consistently see promoting human well-being as a priority on par with maximizing profits is key to helping people through this crisis and crises to come. According to Peter G. Northouse in his 2018 book Leadership, awareness of one’s values is a critical leadership attribute. He says, “when leaders know themselves and have a clear sense of who they are and what they stand for, they have a strong anchor for their decisions and actions” (p. 203). The trouble with our society today is that we tend to make decisions that emphasize profits and profitability over people and our planet, making efforts to support businesses as a way of supporting people far less effective than it could be. Focusing on developing human well-being centered ethics and values, a concept closely linked to priorities, represent a powerful concept to explore and begin implementing to help decision-makers ensure people receive the assistance they need to support healthy levels of well-being and dignity.

Won’t such people-focused efforts risk harming businesses and the economy? According to research from economists and business experts, focusing on well-being and responsibility does not come at the expense of profits. In fact, research done by Alex Edmans, a Professor of Finance at London Business school, and captured in an article for Huffington Post shows that focusing on employee well-being actually promotes and sustains business growth, especially in the long-term. Such research is buoyed by the work of management guru Dan Pink, who citing decades of data from key economic institutions in both his book Drive and related TED Talk, suggests that such people-focused efforts unleash creativity, innovation, and discretionary effort as a wave of intrinsic motivation sweeps across an organization. The emerging concept of humanistic leadership provides an important companion to Edmans and Pink in that it creates a solid, inclusive foundation on which to start building a new decision-making system for business and government, one that is based on values and ethics that place human well-being and dignity at its center rather than on its periphery.

Written by: Jason Smith.

This article has emerged out of the “Humanizing Initiative,” which seeks to humanize leaders and organizations to cultivate leadership. For more information, please refer to



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The Humanizing Initiative

We seek to engage leaders and organizations in conversations to cultivate humanistic leadership to promote human dignity and well-being.