- Talent Management
Within minutes of Hilary Clinton’s near collapse at the 9/11 memorial service in Lower Manhattan, every news outlet and social media platform in the nation was abuzz. From firsthand accounts of her stumble to a street shot of her being helped into a waiting black van by secret service agents, Clinton’s stumble was being recorded, monitored and analyzed. For the Republicans, who have repeated questioned her health status, the stumble was a huge victory–apparent evidence that she is “unfit” to be the next President of the United States. Yes, Donald Trump, who is two years older than Clinton, has hardly been transparent about his own health record either.
There is no question that in comparison to recent races, neither candidate has been as transparent as many other recent candidates about their health. But should leaders–political and business leaders–be obligated to reveal their health status? Is it an ethical obligation?
In 2011, Jack Layton, who was at the time the leader of Canada’s most left-wing party, the New Democrat Party (NDP), suddenly passed away. The timing could not have been worse. For the first time in history, the NDP had become the “official opposition” in Canada’s parliament and all signs were pointing to the fact that under Layton’s leadership, the party had a high chance of winning the next federal election. While an earlier illness (a diagnosis of prostrate cancer) had been revealed, when the spry leader fell ill again, his illness was kept secret–even from his closest advisors. More shocking, after his rapid decline and death, his family, including his partner (another publicly elected official), refused to reveal why he died. For many Canadians, the incident raised a critical question: Had Layton been ill throughout the previous election and if so, had voters been duped into voting for a leader who was in fact dying at the time of the election?
At least for some onlookers, there was some sympathy. Had Layton revealed his illness during the election, he would have killed the party’s hopes of ever rising to power. Layton, they maintain, failed to disclose the truth to keep hope alive. But was that really the most ethical decision? Dr. Lawrence Altman, who has explored the health of U.S. political candidates as the medical reporter for the New York Times, explains: “The Times has taken the position that this is information the public is entitled to know [and] my position is that there should be transparency.” He adds, “There’s no reason any illness should keep somebody from running for office. It’s up to the public to decide whether that illness interferes with the ability to carry out the functions of office or whether that person should be elected. But that’s up to the electorate. The issue to me is that the electorate should be fully informed.”
Putting politics aside for a moment, however, consider the same situation but in relation to a CEO. When Steve Jobs was first diagnosed with cancer in 2003, he delayed making announcement for nearly a year. When his diagnosis was later revealed and as his illness progressed, the company’s stock did continue to take a hit teach time Jobs’ health status was revealed. As reported in a 2011 Forbes article, “Apple’s stock declined 8-10% on European exchanges after the news [of Jobs’ illness] was announced…and a look back at what the stock did in 2008-2009, when Jobs took his first leave of absence to undergo an operation to remove his failing liver shows how much his well-being can move investors’ optimism in the company.” But once again, this raises several critical questions: When a leader is ill and they can reasonably anticipate that their company stocks will falter if they announce their illness publicly, is it more ethical to cover up the illness? Is a cover up in the best interest of their organization–at least initially? Again, depending on who you ask, you’ll get different answers, but in general, there’s a consensus that business leaders should be as transparent as possible about their health.
By the end of the day, Clinton’s team had dropped the “over heated” and “bad allergy” excuses for the Democratic candidate’s stumble and released a statement saying that she was suffering from pneumonia. To be clear, pneumonia is a common lung infection that impacts millions of people in the United States each year, and not a terminal illness. Whether the diagnosis can kill Clinton’s lead over Trump, however, is yet to be seen. Over the coming weeks, however, there will no doubt me many people asking questions about when leaders in politics and business alike are obliged to make their details about their health public.