When leaders fall ill

As I write this Donald Trump is in hospital. Doctors, and Trump himself, are releasing conflicting information about his state of health. I don’t suppose we will ever know exactly how ill he has been: when a leader falls ill, it is very hard to get precise information about their condition. I can think of numerous examples from my own lifetime of the authorities covering up how ill as leader really was – in Britain, the former Soviet Union and Finland (eg. Kekkonen). Every official announcement is overtly positive; the authorities seem desperate to reassure the common people that the leader will recover, that there is nothing to worry about.

     Each time this happens I am surprised at this approach. In my experience ordinary people remain perfectly calm when a leader falls ill! Leaders are human, and humans sometimes fall ill. As an important person they will get the best medical care, and there is a whole machinery of government – vice-presidents, ministers, leading civil servants – who govern while the leader recovers, so what’s to worry about? Why the constant reassurance that the leader isn’t really that ill, that they will recover soon?

     I am beginning to think that those who are in need of reassurance are those very people who reassure us. It is the ministers and other important figures who feel insecure, deprived of the leader who is ultimately responsible for what their government does. And if the leader has to resign due to ill health, or even dies, they are usually a tough act to follow. Nobody else has immediate experience of ruling, of coping with that all pressure and responsibility. They fell lost, bereft of guidance.

     When a leading family member dies or becomes too ill or decrepit to ”lead” any longer, it is other family members who have to take over: husbands or wives, widows or widowers, the next generation. It isn’t easy, but the skills of leading do gradually come with practice. New ”leaders” need humility to learn from others, confidence in their own abilities, and trust in the system. Governments keep going when a leader falls ill, and families keep on when deprived of the leadership of a matriarch or patriarch.

     One’s Christian faith makes this transition easier: trust in a greater power, reassurance from on high as well as from one’s peers, belief that there is a plan and that things will fall into place. Being a leader can be a lonely task, but it needn’t be. Actually, we are never alone.    

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