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Four Leadership Lessons from Trump’s Bleach Briefing

What leaders can learn from Trump's medical musings

A leader faces his organization
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

President Trump’s recent comments on how light and bleach can be studied as treatment options for coronavirus add to a long list of frustrations on the administration’s handling of the pandemic. It goes without saying that injecting bleach to kill a virus is a bad idea, and that Trump’s presidency hasn’t exactly been a case study in effective leadership. While we’re not closer to a miracle cure from Trump’s musings, examining his behavior and response since Thursday’s briefing does yield four tactical lessons for other leaders:

1. Be aware of your thinking style:

In attempting to explain the impetus for Trump’s live working session, Dr. Birx stated that he had just received new information from government official Bill Bryan on a study on sunlight and humidity, and he needed to “digest” that information first. Having insight into how you understand data and get to insight is critical for effective leadership, and knowing the benefits and pitfalls of your individual style can help you avoid sticky situations.

Are you more of a reflective thinker, or an out-loud thinker? Do you comprehend better with visuals and frameworks, or through hearing a story? Are you drawn to the big picture, or do you like to get into the weeds?

Leaders who are more inward thinkers would be better off taking time to process new information independently, whereas those who tend to be collaborative thinkers would benefit from immediate brainstorming sessions with thought partners to understand resulting insights. To make those choices requires knowing your own style.

2. Know your audience

Trump stated he was here to “present ideas”, an objective for which a press briefing is a wholly inappropriate place. The end result was a national audience further uninspired and underconfident in his leadership. For leaders, not everything can or should be said in front of everyone, and the circumference of the circle of who knows what will shift as they ascend to the higher rungs of organizations.

What’s said in a brainstorming session with trusted advisers may be all ideas, outlandish to feasible. What’s said in front of all members of an organization, however, is expected to be vetted and prepared. When people are scared and vulnerable, they need to see clear direction from their leaders. This doesn’t mean opaqueness, but transparency isn’t presenting a wide net of unlimited options to your people; it’s putting forward a sound and structured decision in front of them. This isn’t only for leaders to save face and avoid gaffes; part of the job of an effective leader is to maintain a healthy culture, and more thoughtful communication with the wider bases within an organization is part of that. 

3. Trust others’ perspectives 

Trump’s “I’m not a doctor” lost its footing when followed by a “but” and going down the path of posing potential treatment options for the virus, one of which is actually lethal. Leaders become ineffective when they lose themselves in their own perspective, keeping their on-hand expert seated against a wall instead of sharing the stage. Great leaders gain the trust of others in part by trusting others. It’s a far more effective strategy to stay in scope and leverage the expertise of those around you, rather than opine on topics you’re less learned in. Mobilizing your experts buttresses your own leadership while reflecting resourcefulness. 

4. Hold yourself accountable

Unfortunately, after the fallout of the briefing, Trump took the route of claiming his comments were “sarcastic”. Effective leaders know that apologizing for when they’re wrong, rather than reframing their lapse, is the key first step to healing and moving forward amongst those within their organization. A good apology includes direct responsibility (e.g., “I’m sorry my behavior resulted in…”) rather than casting blame, which is why “I’m sorry you felt…” doesn’t achieve much. When leaders can acknowledge they’re not immune to being wrong, they actually build more trust within their organization; they are seen as more human by others when aware of their own fallibility.

In short, what leaders can learn from Thursday’s briefing by our nation’s leader is this: Don’t say off-the-wall things in front of your entire organization. If you do, listen to their point of view and apologize for the distress your own caused. And don’t, under any circumstances, inject yourself with bleach.

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