Surfside And The Power Of Empathy

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava is meeting the moment with professionalism and heart.

I got choked up last week watching Miami- Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine  Cava  do a masterful job at a press conference in the wake of the tragic condo collapse in Surfside.

Daniella is a friend of mine and I can only imagine the stress and pressure she is feeling as she leads her community in the wake of an unfathomable disaster.

Mayor Levine Cava was my Leadership Florida classmate many years ago. I was the mayor of Delray Beach at the time navigating a series of hurricanes that disrupted our class schedule.

Just when we bonded as a class, we were knocked back by a series of major hurricanes that knocked us off our schedule and off our games. The  storms were ferocious and scary.

But we made it through, and in some ways the challenge of that year made us stronger and closer as a group.

Leadership Florida is a statewide program that seeks to bring a diverse set of leaders together for training and education. The goal is to build better leaders, create a statewide network and to get members to care passionately about Florida. It’s a life changing program. And if you engage it will make you a better leader.

Daniella was an earnest student. She was deeply engaged.

I remember her constantly typing away on a laptop taking notes at every one of our sessions with a series of experts who came to teach.

At the time, Daniella was involved in social services. But when the class ended, she reached out and asked to meet.

Daniella was considering entering local politics and she wanted a primer.

We arranged to meet “halfway” at the Bass Pro Shops in Hollywood.

She peppered me with questions and if I remember, she took more notes.

I left telling her that I hoped that someday she would run.

That someday came a few years later when she won a seat on the Dade County Commission. In 2020, she ran an amazing campaign and got elected to a really big job—Mayor of Miami- Dade County.

I have one word to describe how her Leadership Florida classmates felt when she won and that was “wow”!

Personally, I thought  that Daniella would be a great mayor because she has all the smarts, toughness and intellectual curiosity that the great ones possess. But she also has something else that is absolutely necessary to succeed, to be more than just another elected official who comes and goes and barely leaves a mark. That something is empathy.

Empathy is the fuel for success. You have to love the people you serve. You can’t be a real leader if you lack love and empathy.

I saw Mayor Levine-Cava’s empathy shining through during her many press conferences last week. Her facility in two languages, the care and concern in her words, the warmth of her personality just burst through the screen.

A friend from Utah texted me in the wake of the tragedy saying that he knew these kind of events affected people like me because we were “city people” who feel these things.

Truth is, we all do. We all feel the fragility of people and communities.

But maybe mayors, police officers, firefighters and other city people feel it a little deeper.

Because when tragedies strike: murders, violent crimes, hurricanes, fires, accidents etc. we are (or were) tasked with picking up the pieces. It’s a leader’s responsibility to provide information, context and perspective when the world goes berserk as it does with some regularity these days.

My former classmate voiced all of these essentials and more during her interactions with the press.

She made a point to describe the remarkable dedication and bravery of the rescue personnel on site. How they wanted to keep working and how their dedication was breathtaking. They worked at risk of their lives, with debris falling, high winds that made that debris even more dangerous, rain, heat and fire. They worked in a structurally unsound building focused on their task: to save lives. For these brave men and women, it’s more than a job, it’s a mission. Great leaders like Daniella shine in these circumstances because their humanity becomes paramount to that mission and to the eventual healing that will be needed.

Watching her on TV I thought of that word again: Wow.

We often give short shrift to the soft skills but they make all the difference.  Empathy is everything. So is love for people and community.

We often see criticism of local government fed by cynicism and snark.

But we need local government. We need good, local government.

And we need great leaders at all levels of government.

Tragedy reveals character.

Last week, we saw the character of local rescue workers and the character of a local mayor.

Our hearts break, but we can take comfort that there are still some special public servants who meet the moment with love, dedication and empathy.



  1. Kerry Koen says

    One “take away” from an event of this nature is – the necessity of a fully committed team, including elected officials, administrators and practitioners in the field – all speaking with one voice and focused on one mission. The “blame game” will follow, and accountability is going to be important. But, for now – the job is bringing closure for families who are suffering.

    I know from personal experience that without the elected officials standing along side and covering your back, things may not go well during the initial phases of a major incident. I was blessed to have a Mayor and City Manager that gave emergent operations full attention and support. To know that you are “not alone” at such a time means everything to the operational leadership and those deployed to do remarkable things under very stressful circumstances.

    Thanks Jeff – you were there for us!

    • Jeff Perlman says

      Chief, I was always comforted by my faith in our fire and police departments. Thanks for your kind words and your insights.

  2. I do not know your friend, the Mayor of Miami-Dade, nor do you and I agree on much with regard to the local political scene. But, I must heartily agree with your sentiments about the highly exceptional way the Mayor of Miami Dade County is handling the horrific tragedy in Surfside. She is distinguishing herself in a manner that is exceedingly rare in today’s world. I find myself wishing she would seek a higher position within our State or Federal Government. Her “soft” skills along with her leadership acumen and intellect speak volumes about her potential to make an even larger impact on South Florida, Florida or our country, should she so desire. I pray for all impacted by this unspeakable horror, and for her and all the people in first responder and governmental roles at this challenging time.

    • Jeff Perlman says

      Thank you. I’m not sure there is a “higher position” than serving as mayor.
      I also believe strongly that our local officials can learn a lot about the importance of soft skills by observing Mayor Levine Cava. It would make for a happier and much more productive village. Disagreements are easier to swallow when they are served with a heaping dose of respect and civility. It doesn’t cost anything, but buys you everything.

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