Do we want our leaders to stay strong in a crisis, or do we want them to survive it? 

Boris Johnson meets his cabinet, from home.
Boris Johnson meets his cabinet, from home.
Image: Reuters/UK government hndout
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Humans grew used to expecting, through a long global history of wars and turmoil, one principal quality from their leaders: Strength. Whether it’s a company in financial turmoil or a country in crisis we expect its leaders to be tireless in the pursuit of solutions, to be available at every moment of the day or night, and to always function at the highest level. 

But as with so many things we thought were “normal,” the Covid-19 pandemic is offering a challenge. Because the imperative to appear strong when you’ve contracted a potentially deadly virus—the virus from which you’re in the process of trying to protect your country—might be terribly counterproductive. 

Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, is the highest-profile world leader to be suffering really serious consequences of contracting coronavirus. He tested positive on 27 March and began to self-isolate, but his condition worsened and on Sunday he was transferred to St Thomas’, a large NHS hospital in London. On April 6, he was moved into intensive care.

During his self-isolation, he continually reassured the country via social media and official announcements that he was continuing to perform his role as leader of the government. Although he stopped appearing at daily coronavirus news conferences, he’s made several video addresses via Twitter, including one on 1 April in which he insisted he was continuing to fulfill his duties:

“I just wanted to reassure you… that although I am sequestered here in Number 10 Downing Street I am, thanks to the miracles of modern technology, able to be in constant touch with my officials, with everybody in the various departments across the whole of Whitehall who is coordinating the response to coronavirus,” Johnson said in the video. On April 2, he appeared on his doorstep, looking tired and unwell, to applaud for the National Health Service as part of a countrywide show of appreciation. He has posted images of his work.

On April 3, he filmed himself again for Twitter, saying he was feeling better. He didn’t look better. Two days later he was admitted to hospital.

For anyone aspiring to keep working from home with pre-lockdown intensity, even through symptoms of the virus itself, Johnson provided a shining example. It’s no doubt the example he felt was required, at a time of national emergency when the country needs its leader most. But did it go too far?

The mighty, fallen

Of course, there are examples of leaders—like the current Dalai Lama—who don’t insist on displaying power in the form of physical strength, stamina, or use of force. But in most parts of the world we don’t reward them, while any show of “weakness” is often pounced upon to prove an individual’s unfitness for office. When in September 2016 Hillary Clinton developed pneumonia while campaigning for the US presidency, it was used by the opposition to call into question her ability to do the job. “I’m feeling so much better, and obviously I should have gotten some rest sooner,” Clinton told CNN at the time. “Like a lot of people I thought I could just keep going forward and power through it, and obviously that didn’t work out so well.”  

In the earlier days of Covid-19, both Boris Johnson and US president Donald Trump made light of the virus’s virulence, or their likelihood of catching it. Johnson said he shook hands with coronavirus patients, and Trump contravened medical advice on social distancing while declaring a national emergency. The message from both men, at this stage, seemed to be one of decadent invincibility.

That message has lessened as the crisis has got worse globally, claiming tens of thousands of lives. But the playbook remains similar—meetings, appearances, a full engagement with public life—and, for Johnson at least, it barely lessened, at least in appearance, even after he contracted the virus.

In 2014, Johnson, then mayor of London, published a biography of wartime leader Winston Churchill. Many have said that in his current role he has deliberately styled himself on Churchill, especially since beginning to fight Covid-19, in his words, “like any wartime government.”

Dogged strength was not always his modus operendi: He’s historically been an opportunist who has often absented himself at crunch times, like in the immediate aftermath of the vote to leave the EU, for which he campaigned. But as prime minister, he seems to have felt there was no option but to persevere, to be visible, and to keep on working, even if it damaged his chances of recovery.

And it’s no wonder. We are unforgiving of our leaders’ humanity, and their mortality, and that’s only just beginning to change.

Small changes in business

In the business world, leaders are gradually becoming more intentional about leading by example when it comes to “self care.” Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, went against the stereotype of obsessive tech founder when he took two months of paternity leave to care for his first daughter in 2015, and another two when his second was born in 2017. The birth of a child is not an illness, but it’s a time when human need—for sleep, for connection with an infant, for time not working—is acute. In the US especially, and for fathers everywhere, that need has long been concreted over by the imperative to appear professional and ready for action, and that has been as true for leaders as their employees.

Leaders in fact have been less likely to take visible breaks, since they face public as well as private disapproval for any perceived dereliction of duty. Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, has long been lauded as one of the most successful entrepreneurs of our time. It’s only in recent years that descriptions of his punishing and obsessive schedule have been met with the criticism that he might be working too much

Meanwhile Zuckerberg’s decision to take time out is still rare. When Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, had twins the same year as Zuckerberg became a dad, she said that she would take only two weeks’ leave and be “working throughout” it—a plan prompted, perhaps, by the fact that the company wasn’t doing well, making more than a minimal sliver of time off (after a double birth and with newborns at home) a luxury Mayer couldn’t afford.

In 2011, banker António Horta-Osório worked himself into the ground while trying to resurrect the UK’s Lloyd’s Banking Group in the wake of the financial crisis, and took six weeks off to recuperate. The finance world and its observers were scandalized by “the City’s most high profile case of sick leave;”  by the very idea that a leader should put his mental or physical health ahead of his work. (It seemed to help: Horta-Osório returned to work when he felt better, rebuilt the bank, and remains its CEO.) 

Politics catching up

Is politics beginning to bend and flex in the same way as business has begun to, even for its highest officials? There are a few indications that leaders can appear human and fallible—able to mourn, to rest, to care for their families and themselves—without being immediately booted out of office.

In 2018 newly minted New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Adern became the first female world leader to bring her baby (and its carer, her husband) to the UN General Assembly.  The move arguably showed strength, not weakness, but it also made clear that Adern was a human mother who needed to be with her child as well as a head of state. 

But much more common is steely determination to be at every meeting and to deny the need to sleep (as evinced by both the UK’s first female prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and now by Trump). Even the ability to become sick seems anathema to some leaders: Jair Bolsonaro, president of Brazil, has said that he’s twice tested negative for coronavirus. More than 20 members of the entourage with which he travelled to the US developed the virus. Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo “appeared to confirm” to Fox News journalists that his father had tested positive in March, but later denied that he had done so. 

Can leaders rest?

In Johnson’s case, we don’t know how much rest he was taking vs how much he worked, in the days before his hospitalization, but his messaging was certainly that he remained working and in control. 

Reports now about Johnson’s health are scant, but sources close to him have said he is comfortable and not on a respirator. But his condition is a reminder to everyone that the imperatives of the body don’t bend to any agenda: If we contract an illness, we need to rest. If we have a new baby, we need to recuperate, find time to sleep, and acknowledge the need to spend time with our new child. If we’re bereaved we need to grieve. 

If leaders have the confidence to show us they’re not infallible, and to rest and deputize when they need to, we will likely have healthier heads of state and companies, who can return to work sooner and fulfill their duties better in the long run. 

But as voters and employees, we must also stop demanding unflinching strength and constant presence. Only one type of person can fulfill that stereotype: a superhuman who never gets sick or admits when they are, is never pregnant or post-partum, is never hurt by the loss of someone they love, is never tired. And we don’t need superhumans. We need humans.