The Sick Body: Conceptualizing the Experience of Illness in Senior Leadership

  • Peter P. GhinEmail author


There has been a proliferation of research that has explored the role of embodiment in leadership; however, a common feature of this literature is the assumption of ‘corporeal intactness’, that is, leaders’ bodies are treated as unfailingly healthy objects. Ghin suggests that this absence reflects a broader oversight in leadership scholarship to countenance the illness experience of those in formal positions of organizational power. He argues that the conceptualization of a ‘sick body’ challenges individualistic, masculine, and heroic characterizations of leadership, which have been stubbornly resistant to change and further emboldened by health discourses and practices that promote body mastery. Revealing the sick-bodied leader enables a different leadership discourse to emerge, one that recognizes the universality of the illness experience and ordinariness of leaders’ bodies.


  1. Adamson, Maria, and Marjana Johansson. 2016. Compositions of professionalism in counselling work: An embodied intersectionality framework. Human Relations 69 (12): 2201–2223.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Alvesson, Mats. 2013. The triumph of emptiness: Consumption, higher education, and work organization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Avolio, Bruce J., and William L. Gardner. 2005. Authentic leadership development: Getting to the root of positive forms of leadership. The Leadership Quarterly 16: 315–338.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bloomfield, Brian, and Karen Dale. 2015. Fit for work? Redefining ‘normal’ and ‘extreme’ through human enhancement technologies. Organization 22 (4): 552–569.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bordo, Susan. 2017. The destruction of Hillary Clinton. Brooklyn: Melville House.Google Scholar
  6. Bunker, Kerry A. 1997. The power of vulnerability in contemporary leadership. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research 49 (2): 122.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bunting, Madeleine. 2004. Willing slaves: How the overwork culture is ruling our lives. London: Harper Collins Publishing.Google Scholar
  8. Cannon, Martine. 2011. Do leaders really need to be tired? A sustainable view of leadership development and the vital leader. Industrial & Commercial Training 43 (5): 307–313.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Casserley, Tim, and David Megginson. 2009. Learning from burnout: Developing sustainable leaders and avoiding career derailment. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.Google Scholar
  10. Cederström, Carl. 2016. Like it or not, “smart drugs” are coming to the office. Harvard Business Review.
  11. Cederström, Carl, and André Spicer. 2015. The wellness syndrome. Cambridge/Malden: Wiley.Google Scholar
  12. Charmaz, Kathy. 1995. The body, identity, and self: Adapting to impairment. The Sociological Quarterly 36 (4): 657–680.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. ———. 2010. Disclosing illness and disability in the workplace. Journal of International Education in Business 3 (1/2): 6–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Childs, Dan, and Kevin Dolak. 2011. Steve jobs’ pancreatic cancer: A timeline. ABC News.Google Scholar
  15. Collinson, David, and Dennis Tourish. 2015. Teaching leadership critically: New directions for leadership pedagogy. Academy of Management Learning & Education 14 (4): 576–594.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Dutton, Jane E., Kristina M. Workman, and Ashley E. Hardin. 2014. Compassion at work. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behaviour 1: 277–304.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Ehrenreich, Barbara. 2018. Natural causes: Life, death and the illusion of control. New York: Hachette Book Group.Google Scholar
  18. Fitza, M.A. 2014. The use of variance decomposition in the investigation of CEO effects: How large must the CEO effect be to rule out chance? Strategic Management Journal 35 (12): 1839–1852.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. ———. 2017. How much do CEOs really matter? Reaffirming that the CEO effect is mostly due to chance. Strategic Management Journal 38 (3): 802–811.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Fletcher, Joyce K. 1994. Castrating the female advantage: Feminist standpoint research and management science. Journal of Management Inquiry 3 (1): 74–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. ———. 2002. The greatly exaggerated demise of heroic leadership: Gender, power, and the myth of the female advantage. CGO Insights 13: 1–4.Google Scholar
  22. ———. 2004. The paradox of postheroic leadership: An essay on gender, power, and transformational change. The Leadership Quarterly 15 (5): 647–661.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Freud, Sigmund. 1922. Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. Trans. James Strachey. London: The International Psychoanalytical Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Frost, Peter J. 2003. Toxic emotions at work. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.Google Scholar
  25. Gabriel, Yiannis. 2015. The caring leader – What followers expect of their leaders and why? Leadership 11 (3): 316–334.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Gavin, Joanne H., James Campbell Quick, Cary L. Cooper, and Jonathan D. Quick. 2003. A spirit of personal integrity: The role of character in executive health. Organizational Dynamics 32 (2): 165–179.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Ghaemi, S.N. 2011. A first-rate madness: Uncovering the links between leadership and mental illness. New York: Penguin Press. Bibliographies.Google Scholar
  28. Gherardi, Silvia, Susan Meriläinen, Antonio Strati, and Anu Valtonen. 2013. Editors’ introduction: A practice-based view on the body, senses and knowing in organization. Scandinavian Journal of Management 29 (4): 333–337.Google Scholar
  29. Goffman, Erving. 1963/1991. Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity, social theory. New York: Simon & Schuster.Google Scholar
  30. Greenleaf, Robert K. 2002. Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. Mahwah: Paulist Press.Google Scholar
  31. Hamill, Pete. 2011. Embodied leadership: Towards a new way of developing leaders. Strategic HR Review 10 (5): 5–10.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. ———. 2013. Embodied leadership: The somatic approach to developing your leadership. London: Kogan Page Publishers.Google Scholar
  33. Hanold, Maylon. 2013. (De/Re) constructing leading bodies: Developing critical attitudes and somaesthetic practices. In The embodiment of leadership, ed. Lois Ruskai Melina, G.J. Burgess, L.L. Falkman, and A. Marturano, 90–107. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Brand.Google Scholar
  34. Harding, Nancy, Hugh Lee, Jackie Ford, and Mark Learmonth. 2011. Leadership and charisma: A desire that cannot speak its name? Human Relations 64 (7): 927–949.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2003. The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. 20th anniversary ed. Berkeley/London: University of California Press. Non-fiction. Original edition, 1983.Google Scholar
  36. Hofmann, Bjorn. 2002. On the triad disease, illness and sickness. The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 27 (6): 651–673.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Holzmer, D. 2013. Leadership in the time of liminity: A framework for leadership in an era of deep transformation. In The embodiment of leadership, ed. L.R. Melina. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Brand.Google Scholar
  38. Hoque, Faisal, and Lydia Dishman. 2015. Survive to thrive. Carlsbad: Motivational Press.Google Scholar
  39. Johansson, Janet, Janne Tienari, and Anu Valtonen. 2017. The body, identity and gender in managerial athleticism. Human Relations.Google Scholar
  40. Judge, Timothy A., and Daniel M. Cable. 2004. The effect of physical height on workplace success and income: Preliminary test of a theoretical model. Journal of Applied Psychology 89 (3): 428–441.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Kelly, Peter, Steven Allender, and Colquhoun. 2007. New work ethics?: The corporate athlete’s back end index and organizational performance. Organization 14 (2): 267–285.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Kidel, M. 1988. Illness and meaning. In The meaning of illness, ed. M. Kidel and S. Rowe-Leete. London/New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  43. King, Eden B., Steven G. Rogelberg, Michelle R. Hebl, Phillip W. Braddy, Linda R. Shanock, Sharon C. Doerer, and Sharon McDowewell-Larsen. 2016. Waistlines and ratings of executives: Does executive status overcome obesity stigma? Human Resource Management 55 (2): 283–300.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Kirkland, Anna. 2014. Critical perspectives on wellness. Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law 39 (5): 971–988.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Ladkin, Donna. 2013. From perception to flesh: A phenomenological account of the felt experience of leadership. Leadership 9 (3): 320–334.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Ladkin, Donna, and Steven S. Taylor. 2010. Enacting the ‘true self’: Towards a theory of embodied authentic leadership. Leadership Quarterly 21 (1): 64–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Leavy, Brian. 2016. Jeffrey Pfeffer: Stop selling leadership malarkey. Strategy and Leadership 44: 3–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Little, Laura M., Bret L. Simmons, and Debra L. Nelson. 2007. Health among leaders: Positive and negative affect, engagement and burnout, forgiveness and revenge. Journal of Management Studies 44 (2): 243–260.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Loehr, Jim, and Tony Schwartz. 2001. The making of a corporate athlete. Harvard Business Review 79 (1): 120–128.Google Scholar
  50. Lupton, Deborah. 2012. M-health and health promotion: The digital cyborg and surveillance society. Social Theory & Health 10: 229–244.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. ———. 2013. Quantifying the body: Monitoring and measuring health in the age of mHealth technologies. Critical Public Health 23 (4): 393–403.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. MacGregor, Steven P., and Katherine Semler. 2012. Towards whole person learning through sustainable executive performance. Journal of Management Development 31 (3): 231–242.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Marinker, Marshall. 1975. Why make people patients? Journal of Medical Ethics 1 (2): 81–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. McCarthy, Tom. 2018. Trump dictated note saying he was ‘astonishingly’ healthy, doctor says. The Guardian. Accessed 3 May 2018.Google Scholar
  55. McGonagle, Alyssa K., and Janet L. Barnes-Farrell. 2014. Chronic illness in the workplace: Stigma, identity threat and strain. Stress and Health 30 (4): 310–321.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Meindl, J.R., and B. Becker. 2004. The romance of teams: Is the honeymoon over? Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology 77 (4): 463–466.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Meindl, J.R., Sanford B. Ehrlich, and Janet M. Dukerich. 1985. The romance of leadership. Administrative Science Quarterly 30: 78–102.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Meriläinen, Susan, Janne Tienari, and Anu Valtonen. 2013. Headhunters and the ‘ideal’ executive body. Organization 0 (0): 1–20.Google Scholar
  59. Michel, Alexandra. 2011. Transcending socialization: A nine-year ethnography of the body’s role in organizational control and knowledge workers’ transformation. Administrative Science Quarterly 56 (3): 325–368.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Neck, Christopher P., T.L. Mitchell, Charles C. Manz, Kenneth H. Cooper, and Emmet C. Thompson. 2000. Observations – Fit to lead: Is fitness the key to effective executive leadership? Journal of Managerial Psychology 15 (8): 833–841.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Ospina, Sonia, and Erica Foldy. 2009. A critical review of race and ethnicity in the leadership literature: Surfacing context, power and the collective dimensions of leadership. The Leadership Quarterly 20 (6): 876–896.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Park, B.E. 1988. Presidential disability: Past experiences and future implications. Politics and the Life Sciences 7 (1): 50–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Perryman, Alexa A., Frank C. Butler, John A. Martin, and Gerald R. Ferris. 2010. When the CEO is ill: Keeping quiet or going public? Business Horizons 53: 21–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Petriglieri, Gianpiero, and Jennifer Louise Petriglieri. 2015. Can business schools humanize leadership? Academy of Management Learning & Education 14 (4): 625–647.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Pfeffer, Jeffrey. 2015. Leadership BS. New York: Harper Business.Google Scholar
  66. ———. 2016. Why the assholes are winning: Money trumps all. Journal of Management Studies 53 (4): 663–669.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Post, Jerrold M., and Robert S. Robins. 1993. The captive king and his captive court: The psychopolitical dynamics of the disabled leader and his inner circle. Family Business Review 6 (2): 203–221.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Prothero, Andrea. 2017. ‘We’re sorry to hear you’ve been unwell…’ Personal reflections on health and well-being in the workplace. Journal of Management Studies 54 (1): 118–124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Quick, James Campbell, Marilyn Macik-Frey, and Cary L. Cooper. 2007. Managerial dimensions of organizational health: The healthy leader at work. Journal of Management Studies 44 (2): 189–205.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Riach, Kathleen, and Leanne Cutcher. 2014. Built to last: Ageing, class and the masculine body in a UK hedge fund. Work, Employment and Society 28 (5): 771–787.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Roehling, Mark V., Patricia V. Roehling, and Shaun Pichler. 2007. The relationship between body weight and perceived weight-related employment discrimination: The role of sex and race. Journal of Vocational Behavior 71 (2): 300–318.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Roehling, Patricia V., Mark V. Roehling, Jeffrey D. Vandlen, Justin Blazek, and William C. Guy. 2009. Weight discrimination and the glass ceiling effect among top US CEOs. Equal Opportunities International 28 (2): 179–196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Ropo, Arja, Erika Sauer, and Perttu Salovaara. 2013. Embodiment of leadership through material place. Leadership 9 (3): 378–395.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Rose, Nikolas. 2007a. Molecular biopolitics, somatic ethics and the spirit of biocapital. Social Theory & Health 5 (1): 3–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. ———. 2007b. The politics of life itself. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Roulstone, Alan, and Jannine Williams. 2014. Being disabled, being a manager: ‘Glass partitions’ and conditional identities in the contemporary workplace. Disability & Society 29 (1): 16–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Sahakian, Barbara, and Sharon Morein-Zamir. 2007. Professor’s little helper. Nature 450 (20): 1157–1159.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Shilling, Chris. 2008. Changing bodies: Habit, crisis and creativity. Los Angeles/London: Sage.Google Scholar
  79. Sinclair, Amanda. 2005a. Body and management pedagogy. Gender, Work and Organization 12 (1): 89–104.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. ———. 2005b. Body possibilities in leadership. Leadership 1 (4): 387–406.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. ———. 2011. Leading with body. In Handbook of gender, work and organization, ed. E.L. Jeanes, K. Knights, and P. Yancey Martin, 117–130. Chichester: Wiley.Google Scholar
  82. Svetieva, Elena, Cathleen Clerkin, and Marian N. Ruderman. 2017. Can’t sleep, won’t sleep: Exploring leaders’ sleep patterns, problems, and attitudes. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice & Research 69 (2): 80–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. 2009. Chronic disease and participation in work.Google Scholar
  84. The Economist. 2015. Here comes the SuperBoss. The Economist.Google Scholar
  85. Tiefenthäler, Ainara. 2016. Clinton loses balance at 9/11 memorial. New York Times. Accessed 3/4/18.Google Scholar
  86. Tourish, D. 2013. The dark side of transformational leadership: A critical perspective. New York: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Trethewey, Angela. 1999. Disciplined bodies: Women’s embodied identities at work. Organization Studies 20 (3): 423–450. Scholar
  88. Veiga, John F. 2000. AME’s executive advisory panel goes for a check-up. The Academy of Management Executive 14: 25–27.Google Scholar
  89. White, Kevin. 2012. The body, social inequality and health. In Routledge handbook of body studies, ed. B.S. Turner, 264–274. Abingdon/Oxon/New York: Routledge.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Workplace Leadership, Department of Management and MarketingUniversity of MelbourneMelbourneAustralia

Personalised recommendations