Ebola: A Virus to Make Leaders Healthy

Here's how Ebola could spark a "contagion of compassion" in politics.

ByColumn By Matthew Dowd <a Href="https://twitter.com/matthewjdowd">@matthewjdowd</a>
October 20, 2014, 11:02 AM
PHOTO: Doctors and staff participate in a preparedness exercise on diagnosing and treating patients with Ebola virus symptoms, at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, Calif.
Doctors and staff participate in a preparedness exercise on diagnosing and treating patients with Ebola virus symptoms, at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, Calif.
UCLA Health System, Reed Hutchinson/AP Photo

&#151; -- Let us pause and reflect on the beauty and power of a contagion like Ebola. Before you just say Dowd is insane or making some sick joke, stick with me here while I try to explain how a terrible deadly virus like Ebola might be able to teach us something useful.

In this turbulent anxious crisis time in the world and our country, so many folks are asking what can we do, where are our real leaders, and how can we improve the dysfunctional political system? Great questions, and the answer is both simple and hard.

Last week I was on the campus of the University of Southern California giving a talk to students and faculty on trust and the future of America, and these very questions came up from the participants. They asked how can we get our leaders to do the right thing, and how can we make politicians evidence a better model of leadership in America on crucial issues.

Before responding I weighed many different answers in my head, and could have pointed fingers at this side or that side, but finally said, "Our leaders won't change until we change." Until we start leading and conducting ourselves differently in our own lives, how can we expect our leaders to be all that different? I have always believed that leaders don't really lead, they follow where the country is already going or where the country is signaling they want to go. The best leaders sense this, figure it out, and try to stay a half a step ahead of where the river of public opinion is heading. Leaders first see in us what we want, and then reflect this as they act.

If we want the partisan bickering, insults and uninformed judgments to stop by our political and media elite, then we must be better in our interactions and connections in our daily lives. We can't expect compassionate and constructive leadership over there if we are not practicing it over here. If we can't practice a greater degree of openness, love, and real leadership in the smallest circles of our own worlds, do we really think we are sending a good and clear signal to our leaders?

And now for the power and teaching tool of Ebola. The idea of this came in conversation with my good friend and author Martha Beck who I happen to have seen a day after my talk at USC. If you think about the fact that Ebola the virus is believed to spread only when the symptoms are manifested completely in the patient, the contagiousness of the virus is directly linked to the level of symptoms someone is showing. If one is infected, but not showing symptoms, then the virus has not been shown to spread. But if someone is at full symptomatic manifestation, then the virus is highly contagious.

The same is true for a different style of leadership we each desire. If we say we want a more loving, compassionate, trusting and connected country, and we don't show the full symptoms in our lives, then it will be very difficult to transmit what we want to others and leaders. We must fully embrace in ourselves the world we dream of and then act this out completely as we walk in life and politics. If love is a value we want embraced by others, then we must let this virus become fully symptomatic in our hearts and bodies. If we only allow it to infect us part way, then it will never be as contagious as it needs to be. If we want our leaders to get "sick" and therefore act healthy, then we have to have a high fever of compassion and common sense.

Gandhi once said, "Be the change you want to see in the world," and this is the lesson I am going to take at this difficult traumatic time. Let us each let Ebola show us a different way - ambivalence and confused intentions will not spread love and change our leadership. And this is one kind of disease we need to let infect our entire being and allow to manifest in all areas. I am going to try this more, and remember there is no antidote for the contagion of compassion.

There you have it.

Matthew Dowd is an ABC News analyst and special correspondent. Opinions expressed in this column do not reflect the views of ABC News.

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