The last few weeks have been rough for the CDC. After a series of questionable policy changes and communication gaffes, the organization is reeling to restore its authority.
The CDC finds itself burdened by a figurative albatross around its neck as it attempts to navigate through the latter stages of the pandemic while keep afloat its sinking credibility.
But Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky is not going gentle into that good night. She has been a regular fixture on news channels communicating the goals of the CDC and discussing the merits underlying its policy changes.
She exudes confidence through her words and projects a steady hand. Her demeanor is akin to that of a world class leader. She eloquently articulates the organization’s goals and defines metrics for success with clearly defined contingencies. Of any traditional definition of leadership, she fits the mold.
This is the problem.
The CDC does not need a traditional leader right now. These are not traditional times by any stretch of the imagination. What the organization needs is the ability to establish public confidence in the unknown and make people comfortable with uncertainty.
This is counterintuitive to traditional leadership practices. A leader is someone who creates a vision for others to follow, who sets clear goals with a deliberate process of achieving them.
But the pandemic is not a corporate conglomerate or a federal agency. There are no defined goals. The pandemic is uncertainty incarnate. Chaos is standard operating practice.
The CDC should instead lean into the uncertainty. Convey what it knows and does not know while setting clear parameters between the two. Reach out to the public in a way that is genuine. People naturally reciprocate genuine compassion. Nothing has to be articulated. No policy has to be set. The mere act of connecting and listening is more powerful than any announcement, no matter how assuring.
But the allure of confidence and the desire to project good news in the short term has led the CDC down a winding course of messaging pivots and policy reversals. This is a failure of leadership. Dr. Walensky tries to be a traditional leader in a time when we must buck convention and embrace the void of uncertainty.
The more she tries to exude confidence, communicating whatever may be the current CDC policy of the day, the more she discredits herself when justifying the inevitable policy changes that will arise in the future.
Trust is an opportunity cost. Whatever trust a leader obtains cannot be replenished indefinitely. Trust is a limited resource that must be allocated sparingly and used judiciously.
The CDC cannot ask the public to trust it one day with one policy, and then expect to retain the same level of trust the next day with a different policy. Trust is finite and the CDC has long eroded its trust reserves.
But its leadership continues to pursue the same foolhardy course, exuding confidence when there is nothing to be confident in and asking for buy-in when it remains unclear what the public is buying into.
We need CDC leaders to acknowledge the uncertainty in which policies are made and share how they balance all the unknowns when making a decision. The one thing the public knows is that there remains more uncertainty than certainty, even this late into the pandemic. The CDC should acknowledge as much. But leadership continues to project a false sense of confidence when making decisions.
They believe the appearance of confidence makes them strong leaders when in reality the admission of uncertainty would make them trusted leaders.
This is why policy leaders continue to make wrong decisions and stand behind erroneous policies. They cannot forego the notion that a leader must be confident and have all the answers. And when you guess the answer to a question you do not know, you are likely to guess incorrectly.
But if you acknowledge what you do not know, the rampant uncertainty, you may not have an answer, but then you will have something far more important.
You will have trust.