Ariel Henry
Prime Minister Ariel Henry being escorted by security guards. Photo credit: Orlando Barria/EFE/SIPA

The late René Préval has the distinction of being the only president of Haiti to have served two full terms completely. This is no small feat, considering that coups and assassinations are often meted out to presidents who run afoul of the ruling classes. 

I’ve always marveled at Preval’s ability to read people, his political instincts and his ability to survive despite the massive challenges Haiti faced under his rule. Little did I know he was demonstrating some potential for true leadership.

During his first term, Préval was seen as a caretaker holding the presidency for his eventual successor Jean Bertrand Aristide, and accomplished precious little. In his second term, Préval showed survival instincts unlike anything seen before by keeping friends and enemies alike off guard. He was known to be an indefatigable meeting holder who promised nothing concrete but did not dismiss a demand outright.

By most accounts, he failed to lead the country forward, especially after one of  Haiti’s biggest moments — the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. Instead, Préval shrank and failed to rise to the occasion. 

Groups need effective negotiation skills

When I look back on Préval’s rule and his leadership style, I often think he was the Bouki to others playing Ti Malice — those two mischievous characters in Haitian folklore. While Bouki is the dumb one, he ends up winning more often than not. 

Of all of Haiti’s recent presidents, I’ve been most fascinated with Préval for many reasons. For one, I shared a striking physical resemblance to the former president and during his tenure, people would stop to stare at me wherever I went. “No relations,” I would say to break the ice, as people would laugh after hearing those words from me.  

The assassination of President Jovenel Moïse has thrust Haitian leaders into the spotlight once again, tasking them with solving a political impasse that requires a skillset that I’m not sure they possess. Since the murder last summer, political and civil society leaders have been trying to synthesize about a dozen disparate accords into a coherent roadmap that outlines Haiti’s economic and social development.

At this critical moment, Haitian leaders must develop exceptional relationships among themselves and the Haitian people they purport to lead. For that to happen however, these leaders must embrace the six hallmarks of good leadership:

  • Be more fully yourself.
  • Be willing to be vulnerable.
  • Trust that your disclosures will not be used against you.
  • Be honest with each other.
  • Deal with conflict productively.
  • Be committed to each other’s growth and development.

To be clear, these insights are not mine. These are the guidelines that underpin a course taught at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business called Interpersonal Dynamics. The course is one of the most popular classes at the august institution and is affectionately called the“Touchy Feely” class.

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 lectures  — led by Carole Robin, Ph.D. — have been enlightening.

I was blown away because what we learned in Robin’s sessions run counter to everything I thought I knew about negotiations and building relationships. The idea of opening yourself up and making yourself vulnerable in a relationship is akin to sheep walking voluntarily to the gallows. It’s suicidal. But I think it works because leaders need to show vulnerability and empathy to be successful. 

Robin expands further on leadership and how to build exceptional relationships with family, friends and colleagues in her book, “Connect” co-authored with David Bradford, the principal developer of “Touchy Feely” popular with MBA students aspiring to join the ranks of Silicon Valley sharks. 

The book is full of relatable scenarios and proven insights for people seeking to develop meaningful relationships. Since meeting Robin in January, I’ve had the opportunity twice 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 faced with similar situations. 

I allowed myself to be vulnerable and empathized with the other person I was dealing with, and I was able to resolve the conflict to the satisfaction of both parties. In the process I built exceptional relationships.

A new, better way to lead in today’s world

So as Haitian leaders continue their negotiations, I urge them to think about empathy, vulnerability, and feedback. They need to get out of their comfort zones and try new theories that have been successfully applied in academic laboratories and in real life. For too long, Haitian negotiating tactics have been zero-sum. That doesn’t work because, even if you win, you can’t share zero. 

That all-or-nothing mentality is exactly what we need to shed. Haiti is at a crossroads right now and it has been left on its own to solve what have been intractable problems. However, if we trust and empathize with each other, we can reach common ground and find a meaningful way forward. 

The country faces some steep hurdles. 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 desperate and are taking to the seas in rickety boats, the likes of which we’ve not seen in 30 years. 

The state is in dire straits and the country finds itself in a self-imposed embargo because it is too unstable for tourists or the diaspora to visit or conduct business.  These are unprecedented times, even by Haiti’s volatile history. So, solutions have to be bold and innovative. 

That means Haitian leaders need to develop soft skills. Among the first is empathy. They must not only empathize when dealing with opposition political parties, but they must show empathy particularly to the masses of Haitian people who share a deep sense of hopelessness. 

The last three years have been unusually bleak for the Haitian people. They have to feel heard, and that their concerns and aspirations are being addressed. I believe that the Haitian state is weak because officials have rarely leveled up with the population for the most part, making false promises knowing that they lack the ability or the intention to deliver these promises. 

When Préval reluctantly vied for a second term, he told the nation bluntly that he had gone back to Marmelade to run 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 population that he didn’t want to be harassed to deliver something that he couldn’t. I simply wish that Préval had governed with the same honesty that he promised the people.

Garry Pierre-Pierre is a Pulitzer-prize winning, multimedia and entrepreneurial journalist. In 1999, he left the New York Times to launch the Haitian Times, a New York-based English-language publication serving the Haitian Diaspora. He is also the co-founder of the City University Graduate School of Journalism‘s Center for Community and Ethnic Media and a senior producer at CUNY TV.

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