Fortune Editor-at-Large Jennifer Reingold is filling in for Geoff Colvin, who is off this week.
This weekend represented a new low when it comes to Donald Trump’s ability to lead, as he decided to take on the parents of a Gold Star family. Trump, it seems, simply does not have the ability to be shamed. And here’s why that matters.
Shame is generally viewed as a negative experience. It’s a type of humiliation, usually first experienced at a young age, used to bind people to particular cultural or religious mores. In this era of trigger warnings and safe spaces, shame has been discarded as the provenance of judgmental people who would force you to be one thing or another.
But the inability to feel shame is something different. The Buddhists have a Sanskrit word for it, ahirika—roughly, the lack of conscientiousness. It is ahirika that best defines the campaign of Donald Trump, and which has, in part, propelled him to success. It is also this ahirika that, I believe, is the single most frightening aspect of Trump as a potential leader of the free world.
There is no more relevant example than Trump’s response to being called out at the DNC by the parents of Humayun Khan, the Muslim-American soldier killed by a suicide bomber in 2004. After his father, Khizr, delivered a blistering attack on Trump’s views about Muslims, Trump first insulted Khan’s mother, who stood silently while her husband, Khizr, spoke, insinuating that she was not allowed to speak because of her religion. Trump then said Mr. Khan had “no right” to criticize him, and finally, compared his own work as a businessman to the “sacrifices” made by the bereaved parents.
His response was disrespectful, defensive, and—at least to most of us watching—shameful.
But Trump does not seem to have the shame gene. In his world, it is better to hit back with a baser insult than to stand down. It is better to refuse to apologize than to admit a mistake. But there’s more to it than not wanting to be wrong. It is that he doesn’t think he IS wrong. He seems to truly believe that his bravado will carry him beyond any mistakes. And so far, he has been right. Believe me.
I can’t think of too many successful business leaders that have employed the ahirika strategy. But I can think of many of them that used it to early success and ultimate failure (Al Dunlap, the former CEO of Scott Paper, comes immediately to mind). Strength is important in a leader. But strength without values is not strength. And the ability to know when you’ve messed up—and, in turn, feel badly about it via shame—allows a leader to change direction before it’s too late. It’s not an ability Donald Trump appears to have.
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