Presidential Presenteeism: Rejecting the Myth of the Ideal Leader

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Hillary Clinton’s stumble during a 9/11 memorial service, triggered a burst of media coverage around the presidential candidate’s health. This flurry of media activity followed a narrative crafted by her opponent’s repeated questions about whether she has the “strength” or “stamina” for the presidency. CNN journalist, Christiane Amanpour, pushed back and called out the double standard in how we evaluate health in male and female presidential figures. In her segment “Can't a girl have a sick day?” she presents images of successful male presidents who had significant health-related incidents and received much less scrutiny.

Despite her astute identification of this double standard, I believe Amanpour, like Clinton, misses the real problem buried in this event: the myth of the ideal leader. The ideal leader, like the ideal worker, is never sick, is always available, and will make extreme (and often unnecessary) sacrifices to avoid rethinking the mission or timeline.

When Amanpour asks “Leading the world in sickness and in health; if the boys can do it, why not the women?" she reinforces this unrealistic conception of leadership, one where leaders take risks with themselves and their responsibilities in order to avoid acknowledging their humanity. In truth, just because men do it doesn’t mean women should seek to emulate that self-destructive leadership style.

I do not want to ignore the fact that being sick while leading can feel like a losing situation whatever you do. Had Clinton simply announced some time off she would have been violating the image of the ideal leader by acknowledging illness, something that would probably have been used against her. Similarly, business leaders and managers should be concerned that having sick employees means they could be short-handed and less productive.

The Problem of Pushing Through

However, pushing through illness is a gamble and one that doesn’t always work out for the best. Clinton’s stumble is just the most recent example. As Amanpour’s segment reminds us, the first President Bush became sick during a state dinner, where he vomited on the Prime Minister of Japan and then fainted. Clinton and Bush’s incidents are nothing less than the highest profile examples of presenteeism in the U.S., a phenomenon estimated to cost the U.S. economy $150 billion per year. Clinton and Bush may have thought they were doing the right thing by pushing through, but the reality is presenteeism is a risk not worth taking, especially in such public roles.

Furthermore, this stoic approach to leadership is doubly flawed because it is a leader’s responsibility to deal with the vulnerabilities of others. Leaders decide if employees get sick leave and if they will be paid during that time. If the ideal leader is never sick and real leaders try to emulate that impossible goal, how hard it must be to sympathize with employees asking for time to heal. Relieving leaders of these damaging expectations may be a key tool in promoting broader adoption of paid sick leave.

Myth Busting, Missed Out

Ultimately, Clinton would have had a hard time no matter what she did, but taking some sick leave would have been an amazing opportunity to challenge the myth of the ideal leader and advance her platform. Her act of self-care could have been framed as a call for the same by and for leaders across the country. She already supports paid sick leave programs and acknowledges that it is both right and possible for organizations to respect their employee’s needs to heal after an illness. Had she announced her pneumonia and the doctor’s recommendations to rest she would have had an opportunity to show that real leaders are not everywhere, all the time. Instead, these healthy leaders proactively forge highly skilled teams that not only extend their reach during good times but can cover for them during bad times. That is the secret of the true ideal leader and one that should not be kept any longer.

Follow Dr. Kenneth Matos on Twitter (@DrKenMatos), Linkedin and at Lifemeetswork.com for more about adapting to organizational and cultural change.