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Post Leadership
Posted at 03:04 PM ET, 05/11/2011

Mitch and Cheri Daniels: Why have we come to view leaders’ family commitments as weakness?

Governor Mitch Daniels’ decision about whether to run for president could hinge on wife Cheri Daniels’ support. (Adriane Jaeckle - INDIANAPOLIS STAR)
Seemingly every news organization has been running stories this week about the shocking fact that Mitch Daniels might have to get his wife on board in order to jump into the presidential race. The Post’s Jason Horowitz wrote Wednesday about how “this for-the-family’s-sake political rhetoric is not the usual stalling tactic.” The New York Times explains why the Indiana governor’s delay could be the result of an unusual relationship history—the couple divorced and remarried each other in the 1990s. And The Atlantic has a piece on how Cheri Daniels’ fear of media scrutiny could keep him out of the race.

The multitude of headlines focusing on the idea that a presidential candidate might actually have to—gasp!—consult his family is pretty telling. It says a lot not only about how we view the lure of power and the draw of authority but about the single-minded nature our society expects from the leaders we elect.

I’m not saying the topic isn’t newsworthy on some level. The Daniels’ unusual marital past makes the story of their own pillow talk about running for president more notable than others. Daniels’ ascendance to the top of many Republican activists’ candidate wish lists also means the various aspects of his decision are worth probing, to some extent. And Cheri Daniels’ stepping out tonight for a speech in front of the Indiana Republican Party gives the headlines some immediate weight.

What interests me more than whether the coverage is worthwhile are the reasons behind why this factor in Daniels’ decision is generating so much interest. After all, I’ll admit I’m always quick to raise an eyebrow when a press release says a CEO is leaving “to spend more time with his family.” We’ve come to think of the family excuse as pretense—code for being pushed out, or camouflage for more embarrassing explanations. Commitment to family, held up as a respectful exit, gets seen instead as a sign of weakness.

And why is that? Real leaders, the thinking seems to go, put their mission and their work first, above all else, whatever their families’ needs may be. The ambitions that get most people—let’s face it, many of whom are men—into positions of real power require putting the rest of their lives, for better or for worse, in second place. Even if we all privately believe family should come first and like to think our careers are second, we seem fascinated by the idea that a person in power might think that way too.

I can’t blame Mrs. Daniels for her hesitancy to jump into the media spectacle that the presidential campaign has become. And the Daniels have an unusual past that is likely to mean their marriage and personal relationship will be scrutinized even more than most. But maybe it’s a chance for us all to think about what it means that it’s headline news when someone wants to get their understandably reticent spouse on board before embarking on such a major life change.

More from On Leadership:

Will Romney’s ‘defining’ speech change anything?

Tom Vilsack on growing into politics

Looking for Senate confirmation

By  |  03:04 PM ET, 05/11/2011

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