Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The physicality of leadership

I’m currently reading the autobiography of Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States. If Roosevelt is known for anything these days, and it’s inescapable in his book, it was his enthusiasm for the active life. He was a solider, hunter, naturalist and mountaineer, constantly pushing himself to keep going throughout life. In 1913, 5 years after leaving the White House, and aged 53 he went on a 1000km exploration charting rivers through the jungles of South America. He died some years later in part due to ill health caused by the trip, but no better marker of his identity in the publics mind can be found than the comment by the US vice president at the time that “Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.” Roosevelt’s political and philosophical legacy isn’t that relevant anymore (though an early conservationist and he supported Health Care reform in his ‘Bull Moose’ run for the White House), but he still excites the imagination of many because, he offers a link to that original tribal idea of the leader as owed to the toughest, biggest man in the village. Yet how relevant is this idea of leadership today?

Women arn’t excluded from this, but it’s a comparison that all male would-be-leaders must confront. For this reason, there are always swirling rumors in the USA about hero generals running for office (David Petraeus being the latest unwillingly dragged into the spotlight), and having a military career is seen as a vital requirement for demonstrating you have the vitality as well as the national security experience to be the Commander-in-Chief (although recently the candidate with the stronger military record tends to lose ala McCain v Obama, Kerry v Bush2, Gore v Bush2, Dole v Clinton, Bush 1 v Clinton). Kennedy, a war hero in his own right, hid his (rather serious) back injuries from the public to keep the image of vigor tied closely, and FDR let few people know he was in a wheel chair (or even let his vice president Trueman know that he was sick just before he died).

In Australia this need for manly vigour has been far less important. ‘Tosspot’ Barton only ever made it onto the sports field as an umpire, and Deakin doesn’t seem to have known one end of a cricket bat from another. But if not in activity, at least in mood Australians tended to prefer those who took their lumps without question and retained their confidence and sense of humor. Leaders such as Menzies, Whitlam and Fraser seem to have benefited from their physical stature, and in Whitlam there was also a military background, a rarity in Australian politics. Hawke likewise seemed to demonstrate a sense of energy, even if it was just leaping from the pool in his budgie smuglers to get another beer. Keating didn’t even pretend even this much, and Howard’s love of cricket was matched only by his incompetence at it. To his credit he kept active walking quickly along in his Australian tracksuit every day, and never seemed to tire despite the punishing schedule of being Prime Minister. Though a bespeckled, small, hard of hearing man his physicality was never really challenged when compared to the lumbering Beazley, the equally stature-deprived Crean or the man-child Latham. Rudd, if anything, manages to look even more nerdy and awkward around sportsmen than Howard did.

With the rise of Tony Abbott as Opposition leader however we have the return of someone who is if not making their fitness a claim for office at least enjoying showing a energy and vitality that they hope casts his opponent in a poor light. Rudd’s been forced to respond telling a radio host recently that “Ah, well I, I use a, you know, gym equipment. You know I keep, you know, watching what you eat and you use the gym and all that sort of stuff.” Yet curiously if anything, Abbott’s energy is being turned against him. Just as Latham was portrayed as too aggressive (which he was), Abbott is being seen as too fit and active to be ‘in touch’ with the wider Australian public. Labor MP’s on doorstops regularly use the term ‘lycra-clad cyclist’ to describe the Opposition Leader. Australia’s population is certainly overweight (with 1 in 4 obese) but it’s remarkable that Labor strategists think this is so significant that Abbott’s fitness can be used against him. (Or perhaps it’s just personal envy)

The question then is, should this matter? It was inevitable once mankind started relying on professionals for their defence that these demands would reduce, and that with survival in war usually not the main concern of socities that those with the intellectual skills to manage economies and deliver services would come to triumph. Early echos of this can be found in Hillary Mann’s Wolf Hall (which I’m not enjoying as much as I hoped) on the rise of behind the throne political/bureaucratic advisors to the more ‘hero warrior’ style kings like Henry the 8th. Indeed this divorce of military and political leadership has been much celebrated. Militaries in unstable countries have a unfortunate habit of taking over and then doing an even worse job as leader than the civillians they replaced, and nothing seems to scare generals in developed countries more than a politician asking during war time for maps and input on general strategy.

Some degree of physical endurance is certainly needed for the “man killing” job of leading a nation (to quote Ben Chifley who died of a heart attack while opposition leader, following his former boss John Curtin who died in office), but there’s nothing rational about preferring the taller of two men as the more competent and yet as a species we do it constantly. Taller candidates seem to win office more often (59-33), and its a common anacdote of pop-psychology that taller people get more promotions as everything from CEO’s to retail clerks. As a taller man (6’2 and a bit) in theory I should perhaps be more comfortable with the idea of shorter leaders (for then I ought feel less intimidated or feel that the main difference is of intellect or opportunity). Yet instead I find myself even more drawn to the idea of taller leaders and somewhat decry the ‘rise of the nerds’ (thank you Paul Keating) who now occupy the lodge. I don’t imagine whether Tony Abbott or Kevin Rudd were PM would make the slightest difference if Australia was in a genuine fight for survival or if it did that difference would be organisational and emotional, ie intellectual not physical. And yet I can’t shake the idea that I want my leaders to be the big men of their societies, to demonstrate the vigor of life in all its essence.

If you click the link below, I’ve added a rare mp3 of a 1913 address by Teddy Roosevelt to the Boys Progressive League urging them to join his political cause and treat it as they would a football game “don’t flinch, don’t foul, and hit the line hard”.
Former Pres. Theodore Roosevelt – Address to the Boys’ Progressive League

* In 1912, Roosevelt when rising to the platform was shot by a would-be-assassin. This was a time of assassinations in US politics, but Roosevelt ignored the wound and this, honest to god is the opening lines of his 90 minute, 4000 word speech.

“Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose. But fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet – there is where the bullet went through – and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best”