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What Would You Do in Their Shoes?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert A. Hunter
April 18, 2022

As Americans, we each have the right to express ourselves and to critique our leaders.

This is important. But in the spirit of fairness, it’s also important to recognize that we have the responsibility to base our expressions on a foundation of facts. It’s imperative for citizens, as they contemplate the actions of our public officials, to ask, “What would I do in their shoes?” Equally, it’s imperative for public officials to contemplate constituent reactions to their public policies and empathically ask, “How would I react in their shoes?”

Remember the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, which took the lives of 80,000 Japanese civilians instantly and a total of 175,000 eventually? That was U.S. President Harry S. Truman’s decision. World War II already had taken more than 70 million lives. The president agonizingly concluded that taking tens of thousands of lives with the devasting atomic bomb was better than allowing the war to linger, costing hundreds of thousands, or even millions, more in casualties.

What would you have done in his shoes?

Four decades after World War II, in 1986, President Ronald Reagan was faced with the proposition of responding to Libyan sponsored attacks on American soldiers and citizens. He ordered air strikes on critical military and terrorist sites in Tripoli. Libyan lives were lost.

What would you have done in President Reagan’s shoes?

Just a decade after that event, my family and I hosted a young Libyan student during Utah’s Olympic campaign. We took him to the annual Lindquist Family Symphony Pops and Fireworks at Weber State University in our hometown. When the fireworks began, he turned face-down on our picnic blanket. I asked him what was wrong. He responded that the fireworks brought terrifying flashbacks of the strafing of Tripoli he had witnessed as a child.

Leaders at the highest levels are forced to make tough decisions that impact the lives of innocent people as well as “the bad guys.”

Now, leaving the international scene and turning our attention to state and local leadership, we must recognize the difficult decisions our state government and community leaders are obligated to make these days.

Where is the balance among keeping people safe, keeping a robust economy, keeping our youth educated and looking after the well-being of our workforce?

Lives and livelihoods depend on the decisions of our leaders.

What would we do in their shoes?

Across the country, state representatives and local leaders are doing their best to keep our economy healthy and keep us healthy, too.

What about COVID restrictions, transgender athletes, taxation sufficient to educate our kids, food tax versus no food tax, responding to drought conditions with restrictions on homeowners’ water use, which community services to fund and how much to fund them?

Many of these questions merit discussion from more than one perspective. Thus, in a healthy society, open discourse must be encouraged.

Teddy Roosevelt promoted the attitude that criticism of the President is part of being a good citizen. But, again, it is critical that public discussions be based on facts and truth.

American author Tony Gaskins advises, “If you don’t understand it fully, don’t speak on it. Too many people have full opinions with half the facts.” That’s good advice for citizens.

Mark Twain’s mockery reflects what actually happens at times, but is useful only to make us smile: “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.”

Oprah Winfrey’s advice is good for public officials: “Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.”

Stephen R. Covey, the legendary motivational author, offered a notable message for leaders and citizens alike: “When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.”

The Federal government’s official instructions to naturalized citizens include “stay informed of issues affecting your community; participate in the democratic process; and respect the rights, beliefs and opinions of others.”

All of us would do well to apply that admonition. Being an American citizen requires responsibility beyond listening to our favorite talk show host. It requires us to study issues, participate in civic dialogue and vote based on trustworthy information, while respecting the rights and opinions of others.

Being a public official requires communicating with constituents in a transparent, understandable way and providing that trustworthy information to the best of one’s ability.

In order for a government “of the people” to prosper, we must all empathetically imagine how it feels to be in one another’s shoes.

Author: Robert A. Hunter is a longtime leader in Utah’s political arena, who currently serves as public policy adviser for United Way of Northern Utah, and teaches Leadership and Political Life at Weber State University.

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