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Gendering Leadership in Times of COVID: The Case of the "Strong Man"

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(15 October 2020)

by David Collinson, Distinguished Professor of Leadership & Organization, Lancaster University, UK, and Jeff Hearn, Professor Emeritus, Management and Organization, Hanken School of Economics, Finland

The striking image of a maskless Donald Trump standing defiantly on the White House balcony on his return from hospital exemplifies how so-called "strong leadership" continues to be associated with men and masculinity. Trump reinforced this masculine imagery by claiming to be "a warrior" who is "immune from the virus."

In this ILA reflection, we question the very idea of the "strong man" doing "strong leadership", as a way forward for leadership in the 21st century. Indeed, why is it that in the 21st century the notion of the strong male leader is still so influential and persistent?

In theory and practice, leadership has long been associated with men and masculinity/ies. The 19th century emphasis on "great men" creating change and 20th century models of charismatic and transformational leadership have all tended to conflate leadership with men. Similarly, in mainstream national and international politics, amongst many other social spheres, men continue to dominate leadership positions. There are numerous photographs of large groups of national or "world leaders" showing only, or almost exclusively, men. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this obvious with, in many contexts, an unapologetic predominance of men deciding what on earth to do about the virus.

Yet, men's domination of leadership is rarely an explicit topic of concern either in mainstream research or everyday talk about leadership. This is particularly evident in the frequent associations of leadership and militarism. The revered leader in many societies is he, occasionally she, who has led the nation, be it in war, as with Churchill, or in national struggle, as with Mandela and Gandhi. Either way, wartime and militarism continue to figure prominently in leadership talk, as in the "war on terrorism," "war on drugs" … or rather weirdly, "war on COVID."

Much of men's leadership practices, in communicating, negotiating, persuading, networking, lobbying, pressurizing and so on, is not seen or noticed as gendered. Men's leadership practices often coincide with what is considered and counts as the usual, even the official, way of doing things, and doing leadership. This extends not only to the way things are done, but who is included in the leadership roles. In the UK, there are only a handful of women on the strangely secretive government's main scientific advisory group on COVID, ironically called SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), and there are few women within the core of government with influence in decisions on pandemic-related policies.

"Strong Man" Leaders in Times of COVID

"His-story" tells us that crises create the conditions for the rise of "strong man" leaders claiming to be societies' saviors, and this pandemic provides several such examples. Although the early 21st century witnessed growing interest in inclusive, post-heroic, and distributed leadership, many countries have seen a re-emergence of the strong man leader. This return to an aggressive, tough masculinity may in part be a backlash against feminism, fueled by claims that women are becoming too powerful and that men are being emasculated. The return of the 'strong man' reflects attempts to sustain the ideal of a combative or warrior-like masculinity. Although these leadership patterns were emerging before the pandemic, COVID has reinforced them. Lockdowns have enabled autocratic leaders and dictators to reinforce and centralize their power and influence.

In pandemic responses, many male leaders have responded with various masculinist strategies designed to emphasize and re-assert their masculine power and dominance. Populist male leaders, for example, in the UK, US, Brazil, Turkey, Hungary, India and Belarus have explicitly sought to re-assure citizens by emphasizing their control and downplaying COVID'S threat, such as President Donald Trump tweeting as he left the hospital, "Don't be afraid of Covid. Don't let it dominate your life." Defining themselves as healthy and virile strong man leaders personally invulnerable to the virus, they engage in public displays to demonstrate their own masculine power and strength.

The reassertion of a strong and assertive (hyper)masculinity was a central plank of Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign, and this same aggressive and dominant "tough guy" masculine narrative has shaped his response to the pandemic. Despite the rapid rise in cases in the US, Trump continues to insist that his administration has the pandemic "totally under control." Woodward's recent book, Rage, confirms that Trump understood how dangerous COVID was, but deliberately suppressed its real threat to convey the strong impression that everything was under control.

Trump has contrasted his approach with that of Joe Biden who he argues will "surrender to the virus," implicitly denigrating Biden's masculinity. During the first Presidential debate Trump continued his attack by mocking Biden for wearing a mask. Equating masks with weakness and not wearing them as a sign of strength, Trump stated: "I don't wear face masks like him. Every time you see him he's got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away ... and he shows up with the biggest mask I've ever seen." Through his kind of masculinist posturing, Trump appeals to those Americans who believe that masculinity is under attack.

Defining COVID as an adversary ("a new and powerful invisible enemy") that his administration will overcome ("we will crush the virus"), Trump seeks to highlight his own male power. This strong man discourse is evident in Trump's anti-mask crusade and the movement it has invoked. Trump believes that wearing a mask makes him look weak or afraid; and many of his supporters have followed his lead. His repeated refusal to wear a mask has exemplified the wider message that ignoring the dangers of COVID was the tough and right thing to do. Similarly, when pushing to re-open economies after lockdown (often against scientific advice), Trump calls on citizens to think of themselves as "warriors" further evoking the language of militarism.

Throughout the Presidential Election Campaign, President Trump has rarely mentioned the virus or the current human suffering in the US, even though over 210,000 people have died, and countless millions are infected. When questioned about the effects of the virus, he typically speaks without empathy. For example, in response to a question in an Axios interview about the 1,000 daily deaths in the US, Trump replied 'They are dying, that's true … it is what it is" – articulating a rather uncaring and indifferent masculinity, and exemplifying how strong men leaders often lack empathy and compassion.

Masculine strategies of control in the pandemic have frequently had counter-productive outcomes, most evidently with Johnson, Bolsonaro, and Trump contracting COVID after ignoring medical advice. Equally, the premature re-opening of economies at US state level resulted in infection spikes, necessitating the re-imposition of localized lockdowns. By contrast, those governments that have most closely followed the science have been the most successful in containing the virus and many of these administrations are led by women, e.g. New Zealand, Germany, and Finland.

Gendering leadership, making gender visible, involves recognizing the numerous relationships of women to leadership; enhancing the visibility of women's leadership and management; promoting (in both senses) women's leadership; and questioning underlying assumptions about the nature of 'leadership' and asking the question: whose leadership? But it's not enough to increase the number of women candidates, or to put a woman on the presidential ticket. Gendering leadership also means gendering men and leadership in a thoroughgoing way, making explicit how different men, masculinities, and men's practices relate to leadership.

The pandemic exposes the dangers of excessively masculine leadership. COVID powerfully reminds us that we are human beings who cannot always control nature, and indeed that nature can 'bite back'. Attempts to display masculine toughness through theatrical posturing on the White House balcony and the ostentatious discarding of a mask are entirely ineffective in the face of a virus threat that cannot be vanquished through physical force or symbolic acts of dominance. Yet, rather like King Canute attempting to stop the tide, strong man leaders continue to assert their power and dominance in ways that are very far from strong and effective. In so doing, they render themselves and many fellow citizens vulnerable to contracting the virus. Strong man leadership is not only ineffective, it can also kill.

Reference: J. Hearn and with D. Collinson 'Men, masculinities and gendered organizations', in R. Aldag and S. Nkomo (eds.) Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Business and Management, Oxford University Press, New York, 2018. [http://business.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190224851.001.0001/acrefore-9780190224851-e-55]

David Collinson David Collinson is Distinguished Professor of Leadership & Organization at Lancaster University. He is Founding Co-Editor of the Leadership journal and Founding Co-Organizer of The International Studying Leadership Conference. Previously at the Universities of Manchester, Warwick, St Andrews and South Florida, David's recent publications focus on critical approaches to leadership studies, including: leadership & followership dialectics; power, identities and insecurities; gender, men & masculinities; conformity, dramaturgy & resistance; and humour, positivity and Prozac leadership. David is a member of the ILA and a past Chair of the ILA Legacy Committee.


Jeff Hearn Jeff Hearn is Professor Emeritus, Management and Organization, Hanken School of Economics, Finland; Senior Professor, Gender Studies, Örebro University, Sweden; Professor of Sociology, University of Huddersfield, UK; and Professor Extraordinarius, University of South Africa. His recent books include Unsustainable Institutions of Men and Age at Work.

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