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March 13, 2020

Note From Elie: Let the Experts be the Experts

Dear Reader,

Watching President Donald Trump’s handling of the Coronavirus crisis this week reminds me of one of the best pieces of professional advice I’ve ever gotten.

I was preparing to leave the Southern District of New York, where I had worked for over eight years, and was about to take on a job as head of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice (the criminal arm of the state Office of the Attorney General).  At the SDNY, I had been a chief of the Organized Crime Unit, where I comfortably supervised 12 to 15 of my colleagues, all fellow federal prosecutors. I wouldn’t say it’s easy being an SDNY unit chief, but at least I was expert in the subject matter, the terrain and the players were familiar, and the mission — investigating and prosecuting criminals — was unitary, and unifying.

When I went back across the Hudson River to my home state of New Jersey, however, I faced an altogether different challenge. In my new gig, I’d be supervising over 500 people.  Many of them were prosecutors and detectives. That part I had down cold, no worries.  But the rest worked in technical fields that were largely foreign to me: pathologists who conducted autopsies at the medical examiner’s office; DNA collection specialists; and experts in specialized fields ranging from legislative affairs to federal grants.

Here’s where the valuable career advice came in.  A mentor from SDNY, who had gone on to a more complex and multifaceted leadership position, gave me this guidance: “Find the best people, put them in the right positions, and let them do their jobs.”  Sounds intuitive, even simple perhaps. But it’s easier said than done. Because, as the boss, you’re accountable for everything. So there’s a natural tendency to bear down on your subordinates, to micromanage them, and even to ignore them or contradict them if they reach a conclusion that might make life difficult for you, or the organization.

But I learned that sometimes you need to loosen your grip.  That’s not to say you abdicate responsibility as the leader of the organization.  You are entitled, and responsible, to ask questions of the experts, to challenge them, to test the basis for their opinions and conclusions.  But you need to understand throughout: You may be the boss, but you’re not the expert. Let the experts be the experts.


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Here’s where President Trump is struggling mightily.  It runs contrary to every fiber of his being to back off a bit and let the professionals do their jobs.  To acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, an epidemiologist (for example) has more expertise than he does about the spread of disease is simply more than Trump’s ego can bear.  That would require a modicum of humility, and an implicit concession that he might not be the smartest person in the room on a particular subject. Unthinkable. 

Trump just can’t help himself.  While touring the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta — a place filled with doctors and public health experts — Trump could not help but boast about his own genius: “I like this stuff. I really get it,” he said, “People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability.”  You might roll your eyes, but Trump backs it up with unimpeachable logic, noting that he had a “great, super-genius uncle” who taught at MIT. (Applying this “Uncle Test” to myself, I could’ve been either a fantastic orthodontist or liquor salesman).

Trump even took issue with the hard data.  After the World Health Organization announced that 3.4% of Coronavirus patients had died, Trump retorted disbelievingly: “I think the 3.4 percent is really a false number—and this is just my hunch—but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this because a lot of people will have this and it’s very mild.”  Forget the silly data, Trump’s got a “hunch.” Game, set, match, Trump.

Trump has tried to downplay the threat posed by Coronavirus by comparing the virus to the common flu, at one point referring to the virus as “hoax.”  (Trump later claimed that he was referring to media coverage of the virus as a “hoax”; even if that was his true intent, it is an utterly absurd and counterproductive thing to say).  There’s nothing at all wrong with the president, or any leader, trying to reassure people and promote a sense of perspective and calm. But Trump’s message has understated the seriousness of the threat and undermined the conclusions and recommendations of the government’s own (true) experts.

Trump also mind-bogglingly compared Coronavirus testing kits to the transcript of his phone call with the Ukrainian president (you know, the one that got him impeached) — bizarrely describing both as “beautiful” and “perfect.”  Think about that: what if a doctor was about to test you for, say, strep throat, and said “Oh, this test, it’s a beautiful test.” You’d think he was nuts.

Beyond his counter-productive response to the Coronavirus crisis itself, Trump wastes energy and diverts focus with pointless attacks and tangents: on the media, on the Democratic primary, on an obsequious book release, and on the media, again.  He also took time out to assail a president who left office over three years ago and to remind us that we need to build a wall to protect ourselves from scary foreign invaders (an old standby for Trump).

Running the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice is small potatoes (are there miniscule potatoes?) compared to being President of the United States.  But leadership principles and organizational discipline apply to any entity where serious subject matter experts work under generalist leaders. Trump desperately wants — needs — to be seen as the smartest and most powerful person in the room, always.  But acknowledging the true experts, and giving them space to do their jobs, can be the more powerful show of strength. 

Stay informed, 

Elie

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