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Work-Life Balance and Public Leadership: A Double Standard?

There was a significant amount of media coverage late last week over Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell’s comments regarding Janet Napolitano. Not realizing he was speaking near a turned-on microphone, he noted that Napolitano was a perfect candidate for Homeland Security Secretary because she has no life or family and “can devote, literally, 19 to 20 hours a day to the job.” After several media sources accused him of being sexist, he apologized, noting that he also “has no life” due to his own high-intensity job.

Much of the coverage revolved around the question of whether these comments were sexist. I prefer to give Rendell the benefit of the doubt, as it’s hard to know the level of seriousness behind his remarks, and focus on the larger societal issues that the comments reflect.

It may be true that such high-level leadership positions often require an exceptional amount of effort, and I admire the hours and discipline that many public leaders put into such challenging jobs. However, comments like Rendell’s reflect the value our culture places upon putting work above all else, in a variety of jobs. They also reflect an assumption that such workaholism – as opposed to maintaining a reasonable degree of life balance – necessarily makes a person more effective. Arianna Huffington’s commentary addresses some of these points.

If we continue to praise individuals who lead this type of lifestyle, and encourage – or even demand – martyrdom, is it still fair to expect leadership and policies that support a more balanced and family-friendly culture? Are we not applying a double standard to our leaders? Such high-intensity lifestyles increase physical stress, impact health, strain our social fabric and also encourage “convenience consumption” that leads to additional waste and environmental destruction. Yet, these are some of the issues we are looking to our public and private leaders to address. If we’d like our own standards of living to be higher in this area, perhaps we need to reconsider what we value in the realm of leadership. Otherwise, we may be working against the change we seek to create in our own lives.

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