Take me to your leader

Writing in the Wall Street Journal recently about what lessons we might learn from the great pandemics of the past, the historian Amanda Foreman concluded:

History shows that public leadership is the most powerful weapon in keeping them from becoming full-blown tragedies.

Leadership has been a prominent theme in media coverage of Covid-19. Journalists focus day in and day out on the performance of presidents and prime ministers, and there’s a whole subgenre of commentary on which countries have the best and worst leaders. Opinions on that point differ, but one quite widely-held view (one which could not have been expressed during the Black Death, or even the 1918 flu pandemic) is summed up in this meme, which I saw numerous times last week:

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The point was taken up enthusiastically in an article for the business magazine Forbes:

Looking for examples of true leadership in a crisis? From Iceland to Taiwan and from Germany to New Zealand, women are stepping up to show the world how to manage a messy patch for our human family.

Female political leaders may be a minority in the world as a whole, but in this crisis, it’s being suggested, they’re doing a better job than men.

Should feminists be cheering? In my (possibly unpopular) opinion, it’s complicated. I’m certainly not going to argue with anyone who finds Angela Merkel or Jacinda Ardern more impressive than Boris Johnson or (if you want to set a really low bar) Donald Trump. But in the last couple of weeks I’ve been struck by how gendered a lot of our pandemic leadership talk is, and how heavily it leans on very familiar gender stereotypes. Even when it’s deployed to big up women, I think feminists should approach this discourse with caution.

One thing that makes me uneasy about it is the way it mythologises leadership itself, as if the fate of each nation will ultimately depend on the abilities and the character of a single individual, the Great (or not so Great) Leader. The problem with this from a feminist point of view isn’t just that the prototypical Great Leader is male: it’s that the basic idea is patriarchal, authoritarian and infantilising. In reality, both good and bad outcomes result from the actions taken, or not taken, by many people, not just one; those actions also have a wider context, which would shape the outcome whoever was in charge. Donald Trump, for instance, has clearly made a bad situation worse, but it isn’t obvious that any US president could have prevented a ‘full-blown tragedy’ given the deep-rooted structural problems—like the absence of universal healthcare—that he or she would have had to negotiate.

Dependence on the One Great Leader can be paralysing, as we saw in Britain recently when the prime minister Boris Johnson was hospitalised with severe Covid-19 symptoms. His ‘war cabinet’ apparently thought it was crucial for the nation’s morale to believe that he was still in command. First they prevaricated, suggesting he had been hospitalised only as ‘a precautionary measure’ and remained ‘in charge of the government’; after his admission to intensive care, his deputy Dominic Raab told reporters the cabinet would be implementing plans the prime minister had ‘instructed them to deliver’. There followed a stream of reports, tweets and other comments telling us the patient was ‘in good spirits’ and that he would ultimately pull through because he was a ‘fighter’. We were even exhorted to ‘Clap for Boris’, as if he could be restored, like Tinkerbell in Peter Pan, by a collective demonstration of our belief in him.

This is what I mean by ‘authoritarian and infantilising’: it felt a bit like living in the kind of dictatorship where apparatchiks lie about the Leader’s health to avoid causing panic in the streets. If I’d believed it, which I didn’t, I’d have been more alarmed than reassured to think that important decisions were being made by someone who was ill enough to be in the ICU. My worry (which seems to have been justified), was more that Johnson’s absence had left a vacuum in which no one else felt able to decide anything. But it soon became clear that this nonsense was what a certain section of the public wanted to hear. Believing that only Boris could save us, they wanted him to be both irreplaceable and invincible.

A particularly transparent expression of this belief appeared in a Telegraph column written by Allison Pearson, headed ‘We need you Boris—your health is the health of the nation’:

How is Boris? For millions of people, that was our first thought upon waking yesterday. And our last thought before we fell asleep the night before….It’s rare for a politician to inspire such emotion, but Boris is loved – really loved – in a way that the metropolitan media class has never begun to understand. Hearing reporters and doctors on TV talking about the PM’s admission to the ICU at St Thomas’s Hospital, discussing the likely effect on his lungs and “other vital organs”, was horrible; the picture of naked vulnerability it painted so entirely at odds with our rambunctious hero barrelling into a room with a quizzical rub of that blond mop and a booming: “Hi, folks!”

This is the language of hero-worship, and we can tell from the vocabulary—not only the word ‘hero’ itself, but also words like ‘rambunctious’, ‘barrelling’ and ‘booming’—that its object is both male and hyper-masculine. What Pearson finds ‘horrible’ to contemplate isn’t just the knowledge that someone she admires is seriously ill, it’s the contrast between his normal masculine potency and the ‘naked vulnerability’ induced by illness.

Johnson’s own language has often suggested a similar preoccupation with masculine potency: he has baited opponents with insults like ‘big girls’ blouse’, and likened what he saw as wasteful spending to ‘spaffing money up a wall’. More recently, like several other ‘strong man’ leaders—Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte—he has adopted a macho, tough-talking stance in relation to the pandemic, musing publicly on the possibility that we would just have to ‘take it on the chin’. Some found his insouciance callous, but for many it seems to have confirmed their view of him as the larger-than-life, ‘rambunctious hero’ who is uniquely equipped to lead us through this. Toby Young, for instance, proclaimed his ‘mystical belief in Britain’s greatness and her ability to occasionally bring forth remarkable individuals …’, adding, ‘I’ve always thought of Boris as one of those people’.

Of course, not everyone agrees. This week a columnist for the Irish Post tore into Johnson, saying that ‘of all the European leaders he has looked the most out of his depth, the most shallow, and vacuous’. The writer compares him to the arrogant generals who sent their troops to be slaughtered in the First World War. It’s a totally negative assessment, but it has something in common with the positive ones, in that it imagines the male leader as a quasi-military commander. Whether he is praised for his indomitable spirit and the loyalty he inspires in the ranks, or blamed for his incompetence and indecision, the thinking is hierarchical and the imagery martial. Female leaders are not generally talked about in this way. The archetypal figure we want them to personify is not the heroic warrior but the caring, empathetic mother.

Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the extraordinary emphasis commentators have placed on women leaders’ interactions with children. The Forbes article I mentioned earlier praises Norway’s Erna Solberg for holding a press conference specifically to answer questions from children; Angela Merkel has been commended for addressing the children of Germany; and Jacinda Ardern garnered vast amounts of approving media coverage (the TV clip has become iconic, embedded in almost every report I’ve read about her) for her answer to a question about what lockdown would mean for the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy (she explained that they’d been classified as essential workers, but might not be able to get to everyone as easily as they would in normal circumstances).

To the writer of the Forbes article, this shows what’s different and special about women leaders. ‘How many other simple, humane innovations’, she wonders, ‘would more female leadership unleash?’ And it’s not just that women are good with children: their relationship with their adult citizens is also figured as maternal.

The empathy and care which all of these female leaders have communicated seems to come from an alternate universe…It’s like their arms are coming out of their videos to hold you close in a heart-felt and loving embrace.

I find this almost as embarrassing as Allison Pearson’s gushing over Boris Johnson. That’s not because I don’t think leaders should display ’empathy and care’: I agree those are important qualities, especially in a situation where people are anxious, fearful and grieving. But even if we put aside the loving embrace stuff (which will never be my top priority when judging the performance of any prime minister), it’s a serious problem for women in politics, and a barrier to the normalisation of female authority, that good leadership in women is always equated with–or reduced to–empathy and nurturance. It’s also a problem that women, for whom nurturance is supposed to be natural and instinctive, are expected to adopt a quasi-maternal leadership style (and often harshly criticised if they don’t), whereas with men we are more open to a range of styles and personae.

In the English-speaking media the most widely praised of the women leading their nations’ responses to the pandemic has been New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern. Her conduct has been described as ‘a masterclass in leadership’, and particular admiration has been expressed for her empathetic communication style. Alistair Campbell, writing in the Independent, commented that ‘natural [sic] empathy has always been a strong point for Ardern’, and went on to ask, rhetorically,

could any other leader have stood at a government lectern as she did recently and talked directly to children about how yes, the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny were key workers, but they might not be able to get everywhere because they were so busy in these challenging times?

Actually, yes: at least one male leader, Ontario’s Doug Ford, also reassured children about the Easter Bunny’s ‘essential worker’ status. But Ford, a conservative whose ‘crass, populist politics’ have been compared to Donald Trump’s, attracted more media attention when he angrily criticised the US President for blocking shipments of  medical equipment to Canada. Commentary on Jacinda Ardern, conversely, has given far more play to her remarks about the Easter Bunny than to her demotion and public upbraiding of a health minister who broke the country’s strict lockdown rules. ‘I expect better’, she said, bluntly, ‘and so does New Zealand’.

Ardern is tough as well as caring: it takes more than ‘a heart-felt and loving embrace’ to formulate and execute a strategy as hardline as hers. And men’s leadership isn’t all about Trumpian tough-talking. A number of male leaders, including Ireland’s Leo Varadkar and Canada’s Justin Trudeau, have been praised for their emotionally literate communications. It’s not only possible but arguably necessary for effective leaders of both sexes to combine so-called ‘male’ and ‘female’ qualities. But we view their behaviour through a gendered lens, and emphasise different aspects of it in each case.

Sometimes gendered expectations can lead us to see what isn’t there. In our research on the 2015 UK General Election, Sylvia Shaw and I found that perceptions of the way female party leaders communicated were at odds with the evidence of their actual speech, and that the same stereotypical qualities were attributed to women whose styles, according to our analysis, were totally different. That’s another thing that irritates me about the meme: it treats the women pictured as interchangeable representatives of their sex rather than individuals with their own distinctive qualities.

Talking about leadership in the stereotypically gendered terms I’ve been discussing is a habit I think we need to break. I’m not suggesting a leader’s gender is irrelevant to the way they do things—it’s part of their identity and of the life-experience they bring to the role—but it isn’t the only thing that matters, and it certainly doesn’t determine their style of communication, decision-making or crisis management.

We can surely recognise that certain women leaders are doing an excellent job in this pandemic without putting them in a special, separate ‘female leadership’ box tied up with a pink ribbon. (Would Theresa May have belonged in that box? Margaret Thatcher? Sarah Palin?) And we can surely acknowledge the importance of leadership in a crisis without buying into the fantasy of the Great Leader—whether invincible warrior or nurturing mother—whose words and actions will determine our fate.