Bimbo Banter

Leadership Communication Advice for President Biden

  • Leadership
  • January 25, 2021
  • by Merrie Spaeth

There’s been much discussion following recent tragic and inexcusable events in Washington about how words influence behavior. President Biden has an opportunity to articulate clearly what he expects from those joining his administration. He should listen to critically important advice from three very different experts: Professor Zhang Yongzhen, eminent virology doctor at Shanghai’s Public Health Clinic and a medical power in China; Fred Fleitz, former chief of staff of the National Security Council in 2018; and William Webster, former director of the FBI and CIA and a former federal judge.

In 1981 as a White House Fellow, I was assigned to FBI Director Webster. As one of only two women and the only non-lawyer on his executive staff, I was the junior assistant. No foreign counter-intelligence assignments or criminal-controversy investigations for me. Rather, I was sent to plow through the FBI’s directives from J. Edgar Hoover over decades about how to handle the press and assigned to work on the dedication of the FBI’s new science building. No major strategic resume builders here. However, I also got involved with what they called the Ident (Identification) Division, which was beginning the automation of 95 million paper fingerprint files. Feeling ill equipped to contribute, I asked Judge Webster for more guidance on my job description.

His first response was, “Use good judgment.” I fell into the trap. “How,” I inquired, “does one develop good judgment?” “From the times you used bad judgment,” he replied. This was clearly a long-term proposition. “Anything I can tackle immediately?” I asked. He was waiting for this. He added, “Your job is to tell me what people don’t want me to hear or what they think I don’t want to hear.” It became apparent quickly what that meant.

Whatever one thinks of President Trump’s policies or his personal behavior, his refusal to request and/or listen to this type of information was clearly one of his greatest failings. President Biden should learn from this and establish different expectations for his staff.

He should make clear that he, as president, has decades of experience being briefed or advised by more people than perhaps any president, and that he wants those around him to adopt the Webster principles, to tell him what people don’t want him to hear or share with him the information they think he doesn’t want to hear.

Two recent examples prove the value of Judge Webster’s advice.

In-depth examinations of how the COVID-19 virus took root in Wuhan, China are finally underway, and investigators are, predictably, carefully documenting their findings. Equally predictably, others like academics and reporters are passing on that information.

It’s now clear that significant concern about this new virus was widespread in December 2019. Physicians and research experts were urgently trading emails and phone calls that there was indeed person-to-person transmission and that they were facing a rapidly expanding crisis. Professor Zhang was one of many experts studying the virus and the data. After realizing that others with similar findings were not going public, on January 11, 2020, he gave permission to his research partners to publish their findings on a virology website. Within two-and-a-half hours, the conclusion was spreading around the globe.

Professor Zhang was asked why others who did know what was actually happening kept silent. He said, “I don’t know. For many in China, it’s easier to say what officials like to hear.”

A simultaneous warning came from Fleitz when he articulated his support for President-elect Biden’s appointment of William Burns as CIA director. Fleitz noted that Burns comes with almost four decades of diplomatic and foreign policy experience and has served in high-level advisory positions in both Republican and Democratic administrations. Burns’ job is to rebuild the CIA as an effective, respected and non-political agency. To do this as an outsider, he needs the support of the president. Fleitz wrote that Burns is perhaps uniquely prepared to function by “telling President Biden what he needs to know as well as what he does not want to hear.” The incoming president can send a signal to everyone, starting with his new administration, by articulating this principle publicly to Burns and backing it up with his actions.

If President Biden follows the advice of Judge Webster, Professor Zhang and Mr. Fleitz as both models and warnings, he will signal that he understands that information that people think you don’t want to hear will get out and has the potential to cause significant damage. He will also make clear that good decisions need to be based on accurate and timely information, even while there is significant debate about how to define or describe it.

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