For those who may have missed it, during a White House briefing this week, President Trump speculated that injecting detergent into coronavirus patients might be an effective form of treatment for COVID-19. After a barrage of negative comments from health officials, including brands like Dettol and Lysol confirming that under no circumstances should their products be ingested or injected into the body, Trump reversed his comments and claimed he was being “sarcastic”.
In the White House Briefing Room with President Trump that day was Dr Deborah Birx, a highly respected and accomplished physician who specialises in immunology, vaccine research and global health. Birx is no stranger to working in a political environment having worked for three Presidents during her career including her appointment by President Obama to lead the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS relief and more recently an appointment by President Trump to lead the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
The footage of Dr Birx’s reaction to President Trump’s comments immediately went viral. Birx did not correct Trump but remained silent during the awkward exchange. Birx’s body language is revealing as you see her avert her gaze, stiffen in her chair, rapidly blink and take a number of deep breaths. You could be forgiven for thinking she appears completely dumbstruck by what she hears Trump suggest.
What do you think you would have done in Dr Birx’s shoes?
Missed opportunity to lead
Putting politics aside, I believe we can all find empathy for Birx during these few moments. Birx’s entire career has been in the medical profession seeking to find cures to communicable diseases and enhance public health. She would have known, clearly, the consequences of what the President was suggesting. I am sure if any of us were in Birx’s shoes we would have wanted to be anywhere, but there, in that moment, especially as he looked to her to confirm his views.
Despite the extremely challenging situation, it is also clear what needed to be said by Birx in that moment.
Birx needed to summon all the courage she could to correct the President when he called on her. She needed to say, respectfully, something to the effect of “No, Mr President. What are you suggesting is not correct and will cause significant health consequences.” As an individual, this was an opportunity to demonstrate authentic, courageous leadership. As a physician and leader in the response to COVID-19 in the United States, this was an opportunity demonstrate leadership on behalf of the scientific community and health workers putting their own lives at risk to keep people safe.
It would have been completely understandable for Birx to spend those few moments weighing up the personal consequences that might flow from speaking up and questioning the President so publicly. There would have been an ingrained deference to her leader (compounded by the fact he is the President) as well as a genuine fear of losing her job and the very real risk of public humiliation. It was an understandable, human response to remain quiet in that moment.
Yet leadership is about seizing these kinds of opportunities to be courageous and to truly lead. To stand up for what you know to be right even in the face of personal consequences and immense discomfort. Leaders legacies are made in the tough moments when everyone wishes they were not you.
This was Dr Birx’s moment.
On a broader level, Birx had the opportunity to represent and lead the scientific community. Birx holds a position of significant influence and importance in the American fight against COVID-19. The decisions she makes can save lives.
In a letter to the Editor published in the medical journal Nature (coincidentally only two days before this incident) by University of Cambridge academic Patricia Andrews Fearon and others, the following clarion call is made to all members of the scientific community –
“We urge the scientific community to seize the opportunity to build trust … Now, more than ever, we must show our commitment to humility, honesty and the public good”.
This was Dr Birx’s moment to do just that.
While we may all like to imagine how we would have bravely spoken up if we were in Birx’s shoes, the reality is very few of us would. In her book The Fearless Organisation, Amy C. Edmondson reports that in one research study 85% of employees reported at least one occasion when they felt unable to raise a concern with their bosses, even though they believed the issue to be important. We should therefore not be surprised that Birx remained silent.
Yet this is also precisely why, as leaders ourselves, we must ensure our workplaces are psychologically safe environments where people are encouraged to speak up.
My hope for all of us as leaders is that when our moment comes and we find ourselves in a challenging situation like this, we find the courage to step up and lead. Those we lead are relying on us to show the way.