Communicating Up And Down: The Missing Ingredient

Communication Up And Down: The Missing Ingredient


Leonard Zwelling

“America now feels more like people who took the Expedited Three Month Training Course and got the security badge and went to work and formed an affinity group to advocate for change. A people who love to talk, endlessly, about sensitivity…”

Sounds like modern academic medicine to me.

Peggy Noonan comments thusly at the end of her op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on June 4 about “The Uvalde Police Scandal.”

As she says, this was “the largest law-enforcement scandal since George Floyd.”

The essence of the story of Uvalde is that the responsible adults did not act responsibly and that we will probably get lengthy investigations about the behavior of local police and the failure of those officers to adequately respond to a deadly emergency. Whether that assessment will be honest or timely or have consequences is as yet unknown.

We do know that much of what was conveyed to the press in the early hours of the tragedy and to Governor Abbott turned out to be inaccurate.

Noonan goes on.

“I think I am seeing a broad and general decline in professionalism in America, a deterioration of our pride in concepts like rigor and excellence.”

She points to January 6 and our departure from Afghanistan as examples. I would add more locally the mistaken belief that being “nice” equals being professional. Professionals get paid for acting as fiduciaries—having someone else’s interest in mind above all else. Professionals may be nice, but few of those they serve pay them to be nice. They are paid to do a job.

Here’s the point.

Uvalde was a massive failure of leadership and management in a crisis. Supposedly the local police were trained to deal with an active shooter in a school, but failed miserably when the real thing occurred. The leader of the school police supposedly had no communication with those above him with information and parents could not get the police to act. This is indeed a scandal, but a predictable one.

For reasons that escape me, people in leadership positions are more interested in obfuscating, lying, and covering their collective rears than actually leading. I believe that this reflects a certain lack of character as well as a lack of real sensitivity and empathy.

As Noonan points out, it’s the job of the police to rush into harm’s way when those under their protection are threatened. In Uvalde, this didn’t occur. We may find out why at some point, but the obvious answer is that the adults in charge did not take their jobs seriously. They put their own interest over those they were sworn to protect. This has become a common theme in leadership where the traditional fiduciary role of the leader is subjugated to the leader’s need to continue in his or her position rather than to actually do a job. When a fiduciary puts his own interests ahead of those for whom he is responsible, that is called a conflict of interest.

The police in Uvalde failed at doing job one. It is my argument that many leaders in academic medicine are doing the same and for the same reasons. They are under trained, under committed, and under intelligent.

How to fix this?


The great failure of most poor leaders is their excessive need to talk without really communicating. President Biden exemplified this in his recent comments about gun violence where he gave a boiler plate speech and then gave it again, repeating everything he had already said. He needs to twist some arms and get Congress to enact reasonable legislation not repeat and repeat what he is committed to or horrified by. Do something for goodness sake! Listen to the people.

The same is true in academic centers where the ever-growing bureaucracy of inadequates surrounding the leader insulates that leader from the opinions and suggestions of the faculty and staff, yet that leader goes on talking with elaborate slide presentations, visual aids, and evasion of hard questions.

I am old now. I am beginning to sound like my parents when I hear modern popular music. I don’t get it. Perhaps that’s also true of my view of younger leadership (although Biden is going to be yet another failed Baby Boomer President, older than I). But we could use some real leaders. I’m thinking about Zelenskyy. They still exist. I just wish they would ascend to important positions in our national life and our academic centers.

As Noonan ends in her piece. “I’ve never seen a country so in need of a hero.” Academic medicine could use a few heroes as well.

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