When Joe Biden announced his choice of Kamala Harris as his running mate on Tuesday, reactions were fairly predictable. The Trump campaign unleashed an ad attacking both Harris and Biden. Some fellow Democrats praised the choice and many noted that she will be the first Black woman and the first Asian-American nominated as president or vice president by a major party. In the midst of all the hoopla, it's easy to miss that his choice is an important lesson in emotional intelligence, especially with regard to not letting hurt feelings influence your judgment as a leader.
Biden and Harris have known each other for years, and she worked closely with Biden's late son, Beau, when he was attorney general of Delaware and she was attorney general of California. But she was also a presidential candidate. During the first Democratic primary debate just over a year ago, Harris raised her own profile and won cheers from the audience when she directly challenged Biden on issues of racial equality.
To begin with, she chided Biden for some public comments that had already been widely criticized. Bemoaning the lack of civility in today's Senate, he recalled working with Mississippi senator James O. Eastland and Georgia senator Herman Talmadge, both segregationists and both now dead. "We didn't agree on much of anything. We got things done," Biden said of them.
"It's personal and it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and careers on the segregation of race in this country," Harris said during the debate. She went on to challenge Biden on his opposition to busing, noting that she herself had been bused as a child.
Consider Harris's job history. Before she was elected to the Senate, she was a district attorney in San Francisco and attorney general of California. As a litigator, she is well accustomed to facing down her legal opponents and making impassioned arguments against them, while maintaining a collegial working relationship that is unaffected by what gets said in court. So the whole event may not have affected her feelings for Biden very much.
"A punch to the gut."
But it was different for Biden, who from the beginning has run on his civil rights record and his ties to Black communities. It was clear even onstage that he was taken aback, and that the attack stung. "I was prepared for them to come after me, but I wasn't prepared for the person coming at me the way she came at me. She knew Beau, she knows me," he said afterward. His wife Jill Biden described it as "a punch to the gut."
Harris was widely seen as the winner of that debate, but with dwindling funds and diminishing poll numbers, she dropped out of the race about five months later. Since then, she has stumped for Biden and she raised $3.5 million for him in a virtual fundraiser in June.
Which brings us to today. On Monday, it was widely reported that Biden's VP-vetting team had disbanded because it had finished its job. Either a decision had been made or Biden alone would make the final decision. In picking Harris--a polished, experienced politician, a compelling speaker, and someone who is aligned with him on many issues--he chose a running mate well qualified to share the ticket with him, as well as someone who'll break gender and racial barriers if she's elected.
But he also chose to set aside any hurt or anger that may linger from that 2019 debate. Although her comments might have seemed personal, he chose not to take them personally. He valued her actions, such as raising money for his campaign, above her words. And he displayed the emotional intelligence and empathy needed to understand why she would come after him on the debate stage but then turn around and support him when her run was over.
It's a valuable lesson for every leader. In business, as in politics, taking things personally is never helpful, and neither is acting on emotions like anger or hurt. Seeking to understand why someone said or did something that seemed hurtful, and then working to get past that hurt can lead to stronger relationships and powerful alliances. It may work out that way for Harris and Biden.