Get access

Being There: Why Leaders Should Not “Fiddle” While Rome Burns


Joanne B. Ciulla, a professor and Coston Family Chair in Leadership and Ethics in the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond, currently serves as president of the Society for Business Ethics.


A leader's “being there” for his or her constituents is a matter of moral importance even when it lacks immediate practical value. Physical presence during or after a crisis plays a signal role in conveying moral solidarity, commitment, and concern, apart from the leader's actual empathy or sensitivity. The familiar story of Nero fiddling while Rome burned illustrates, by contrast, the importance of a leader's presence. Similar illustrations are provided by more recent examples of leaders who failed to “be there” when disaster struck: Vladimir Putin remaining on vacation during the Kursk submarine disaster, and George W. Bush's conspicuous absence in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In contrast, President Bill Clinton made it a priority to show up at the scene of disasters, a priority that may have contributed to his resilient popular support.