Like many Americans in 2020, I found Doctor Anthony Fauci’s calm, no-nonsense approach to the coronavirus briefings to be a moment of solace.
Unfortunately, the information that Doctor Fauci was sharing tended to run in direct contradiction to the message the White House wanted to put out. It seems this often got Doctor Fauci in trouble and caused him to be publicly sidelined by the White House.
The New York Times has an excellent interview with Dr. Fauci with more than a few anecdotes where his commitment to the truth got him into trouble. Some excerpts:
There was one time — we were in the Oval Office sitting in the chairs around the Resolute Desk. We had this interesting relationship, kind of a New York City camaraderie thing where we kind of liked each other in the sense of “Hey, two guys from New York.” And he was holding forth on some particular intervention, and saying something that clearly was not based on any data or evidence. There were a bunch of people there, and he turned to me and said, “Well, Tony, what do you think?” And I said, you know, I think that’s not true at all because I don’t see any evidence to make you think that that’s the case. And he said, “Oh, well,” and then went on to something else.
Then I heard through the grapevine that there were people in the White House who got really surprised, if not offended, that I would dare contradict what the president said in front of everybody. And I was, “Well, he asked me my opinion. What do you want me to say?”
Did Mr. Trump himself ever yell at you or say, “What are you doing contradicting me?”
There were a couple of times where I would make a statement that was a pessimistic viewpoint about what direction we were going, and the president would call me up and say, “Hey, why aren’t you more positive? You’ve got to take a positive attitude. Why are you so negativistic? Be more positive.”
For anyone who has worked closely with a strongly opinionated leader, this may feel familiar.
As leadership teams expand, often so does the peer pressure to agree with the head person in charge. A fear about being perceived as negative, “not a team player,” or even being terminated can set in among generals if they contradict the leader. So it stops, and soon, the leader is surrounded only by those who are willing to agree with them.
While this may mean the leader is more empowered to execute on and attempt to realize their vision. It does little to ensure that vision is successful at achieving its goals.
In a Scrum-based software organization, a development team will form a set of hypotheses, build something based on those, release it. They will then gather feedback and form new hypotheses to improve on it through iteration. When executed properly, this leads to a team that is not afraid to ruthlessly kill their darlings in pursuit of a goal.
In my experience, the greatest periods of growth and success at any company I’ve worked at were the ones where a healthy dialogue existed. In these places, the leaders not only embraced differing opinions but sought them out and used the Socratic method to build a stronger hypothesis and adapt.
From what we’ve learned, I think it’s safe to say that our 45th President did not embrace the Socratic method. I also think it’s safe to say that the administration’s Coronavirus response was objectively a failure.
Now, correlation is not necessarily causation. But pandemics, like markets, don’t care about the ego of the leader. You can’t ‘spin’ a virus away.
Had the President been more willing to trust Dr. Fauci and listened to him seriously instead of fighting against him, it’s safe to assume that the United States would have handled COVID-19 much differently. And perhaps we’d be better off for it.
Weren’t you concerned that you would be blamed for the failures if you didn’t resign?
When people just see you standing up there, they sometimes think you’re being complicit in the distortions emanating from the stage. But I felt that if I stepped down, that would leave a void. Someone’s got to not be afraid to speak out the truth. They would try to play down real problems and have a little happy talk about how things are OK. And I would always say, “Wait a minute, hold it folks, this is serious business.” So there was a joke — a friendly joke, you know — that I was the skunk at the picnic.
Did your wife ever suggest that you quit?
She brought up that I might want to consider it. She’s an incredibly wise person, knows me better than anybody else in the world, obviously. She said, “Do you want to have a conversation to balance the pros and the cons of what it would accomplish?”
And after a conversation, she ultimately agreed with me. I always felt that if I did walk away, the skunk at the picnic would no longer be at the picnic. Even if I wasn’t very effective in changing everybody’s minds, the idea that they knew that nonsense could not be spouted without my pushing back on it, I felt was important. I think in the big picture, I felt it would be better for the country and better for the cause for me to stay, as opposed to walk away.
Leaders beware; if you want your business to succeed, make sure you’re not chasing all your skunks away. They probably have your best interests at heart.