The Strength of Empathetic Leadership


Joe Biden will likely not go down as one of the great speakers in American political history. He does not have the folksy, aw-shucks delivery of Ronald Reagan that connected with so many in the 1980s. Nor does he possess the inspirational qualities of a John F. Kennedy or a Barack Obama. But Biden does have something that these other leaders do not, and that quality was on full display during his first primetime Presidential address to the nation.


The strength of Biden’s oratory isn’t that he rises above the common man as the most powerful person in the free world, but the ways in which he wields his office while remaining a man of the people. He doesn’t speak like a leader giving commands, but as a friend offering advice.


The address was scheduled to mark the first anniversary of the World Health Organization’s Declaration that COVID-19 was a worldwide pandemic. It was also to punctuate the passage and signing of his giant 1.9 trillion-dollar rescue plan. It is probably no coincidence that Biden’s address to the nation came nearly 88 years to the day of President Franklin Roosevelt’s first Fireside Chat in March of 1933.


As someone who works with CEOs, business professionals, politicians, and others to effectively communicate ideas and messages, communicating empathy could be one of the most challenging things to do. You can’t teach empathy. Either you have it or you don’t.

Whatever your opinion of Biden, know this: He has empathy. Biden, who has a deep history of personal loss and grief, called upon his own hardships to provide a much-needed salve to a nation plagued by unrelenting loss. Whether it to someone grieving one of the 530,000 lives lost to COVID, someone unemployed and struggling to pay the bills, or simply someone mourning the loss of normalcy he feels your pain.


In one particularly memorable moment, The President leaned into the camera, elbows on the lectern, and said, “I need you. I need you.” The sincerity of his delivery and the repetition of the line was especially powerful. He didn’t say “This is what you need to do,” which sounds like a directive that has negative connotations. He stared straight into the camera and made a direct appeal to you, the individual, in an invitation to join him in the fight to beat the pandemic. A subtle, but powerful difference.

 Biden’s body language is also very telling. While his predecessors tend to deliver speeches with perfect presidential posture, Biden leaned forward to make his points. He quite effectively raised and lowered his voice in various parts to provide subtle emotional emphasis. The few who were there said after that it was almost hard to hear him because of the intimacy of the delivery. That was intentional. It was not a speech written for a live audience in the room. Having that address interrupted and peppered with applause would have had an adverse effect and made what he was saying seem disingenuous.


One final observation is the addition of the flags of all 50 states behind him. They were lined up the length of the White House Cross Hall from the East Room to the State Dining Room. As a long-time observer of Presidential speeches, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that set-up. The intention, of course, was to drive home Biden’s call for unity without shoving it down people’s throats. They also served as bold reminders of his office while he spoke with humility. His use of the word “We” along with the addition of the flags behind him was well-thought-out by the Communications team.


Historians will not remember Joe Biden’s first presidential address among the list of great Presidential speeches. But from the standpoint of effective delivery, he delivered.

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