Home >

When the Leader is Ill

The stress of leadership is high. It takes a physical as well as psychological toll. Drug or alcohol addiction is particularly problematic, but ulcers, hypertension, or migraine headaches can also interfere with a leader’s performance or be aggravated by pressures on the leader. Different types of illness have different durations and complications. Each poses its own challenge to followers, from a six-week bout with Lyme disease to a survived heart attack, a battle with cancer, or progressive dementia.

Though serious illness can strike at any age, it is more common as people grow older. Senior leadership positions tend to be filled with older, more experienced people. Thus, illness among leaders is more common than we think. A close follower is faced with a special type of crisis when the leader is ill. The support a leader needs can become more demanding and pose new problems.

In lower levels of leadership, the challenge is often how to keep things going in the leader’s absence or unburden her sufficiently so she can get the rest needed to recover. As in a crisis, we must decide what responsibility and authority is appropriate for us to assume.

In higher levels of leadership, the problem can become complicated because the attending physician may also be a follower who is balancing medical and business or political priorities. A head of state always has a personal physician. Often, so do other senior ranking officials, celebrities, or wealthy industrialists. Sometimes there is great pressure on the physicians and the inner circle to collude in masking a medical condition from the public. It can be extremely dangerous to allow leaders to make high-level decisions, perform critical negotiations, or engage in taxing events when their physical and mental processes are impaired by illness, pain, or medication. In its final years, the former Soviet Union was plagued with this condition in its leaders, as was Franklin Roosevelt in the final months of his life, toward the conclusion of World War II.

When supporting a leader who is ill we can bear in mind these guidelines:

Our primary responsibility is to the common purpose and those whom the organization serves.

We are also responsible for the welfare of the leader as a human being who is ill, and perhaps in pain and frightened.

If the leader won’t acknowledge the seriousness of her illness, we must help her do so or turn to whatever institutional recourse is available.

Just as other courageous followers need our support from time to time, so may the leader’s physician.

If the leader will be unavailable for a period, we must clarify responsibilities and authorities so the organization can function.

The leader needs reassurance that her interests and the interests of the organization are being taken care of so she can concentrate on recovery.

If we fail to temporarily reorganize in the face of a leader’s illness, the organization can badly drift. If we regroup for the duration of the illness, we can make forward motion toward our purpose. When it’s clear that the leader’s team is in control of events, those who might otherwise take advantage of the leader’s impairment will be dissuaded from doing so.

Illness tests leaders and followers. It is part of life. It must be acknowledged and dealt with both medically and organizationally. Faced with a leader’s illness, the courageous follower takes energetic action to care for both the leader and the organization.