Hillary Clinton and the dangerous myth of the hero leader

When we don't allow our leaders to show any human frailty, we all suffer.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 12 Sep 2016

You only need to look at the enduring fascination with Elon Musk, Richard Branson and the late Steve Jobs to see that business isn’t immune to 21st century celebrity culture.

Our version of Kim Kardashian is the ‘hero leader’, that elusive superhuman who can single-handedly transform the fate of organisations while subsisting only on four hours’ sleep and the odd celery stick.

It’s fairly safe to say US presidential hopeful Donald Trump considers himself one of their ilk, a permatanned demigod endowed with limitless reserves of energy and business smarts.

With that in mind, it’s hardly surprising to see him attack rival Hillary Clinton over her recent ill-health. ‘She doesn’t have the strength or the stamina’ to be president, he said repeatedly over the summer, before Clinton was revealed to have pneumonia.

The argument is simple: why would you want to choose a leader who can’t stand the pressures of the job, someone who might succumb during a crisis or if someone turns the air conditioning up too high, when you could pick a mightily-coiffed, red-blooded stallion like Trump?

Well, a couple of reasons...

Aside from the obvious fact that anyone can get ill, it puts a tremendous strain on leaders not to allow them to show any human frailty. There’s pressure enough running a large organisation or indeed a nation state without having to pretend you’re immortal.

More importantly, the false ideal of the hero leader ultimately stops the top people getting the top jobs in the first place.

Clearly, being able to handle a crisis and make tough decisions at very short notice is a desirable leadership trait, in some positions more than others. But other things are important too: vision, a talent for seeing the big picture, the ability to organise and inspire teams. A ‘stout constitution’ is no substitute for a sharp mind.

Prioritising superhuman stamina runs the risk of deterring older people, parents and those with disabilities, who all things considered could be better for the job.

Besides, even if you sometimes need to take time off sick, the leadership of an organisation shouldn’t grind to a stop just because the leader is out of action. A strong executive team and intelligent contingency plans should allow the firm to go on while the boss recovers.

Donald Trump's Leadership style in 5 words

Clearly, this can be taken too far – the most important roles obviously require a lot of time and energy, and if a leader has a health problem that does severely impede their ability to provide those, then that surely requires a frank conversation with the board.

But to assume that getting a chest infection or indeed a permanent disability somehow automatically disqualifies someone from the highest offices is outdated and downright harmful. 

Image credit: Paul Stevenson/Wikimedia Commons


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