What’s the matter with Dr. Deborah Birx? 5 Reasons for her epic #Leadershipfail

Issue 127 — April 27, 2020

If you’re watching the Mrs. America series starring Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, who mobilized the successful opposition to the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, you might wonder why in the world would a woman oppose equal rights for her own gender?

A side-by-side of the real Phyllis Schlafly (left) and Cate Blanchett as her in the new Mrs. America series.

As the saying goes, it doesn’t have to make sense. But there may nevertheless be reasons. Or five of them.

I’ll tackle Schlafly, who I had the dubious pleasure of debating on a Phil Donahue show some years back, another time. But we can ask the same question today about Deborah Birx M.D.

Dr. Birx is the woman with many scarves sitting behind or standing beside President Donald Trump during his often inaccurate or contradictory, sometimes downright bizarre briefings on the coronavirus pandemic.

When I first saw Dr. Birx visibly cringing in the background and subsequently serving as interpreter and apologist-in-chief for the president, I assumed she was unqualified for the enormous job of serving on the task force charged with leading the government’s response to the coronavirus, she as the Coronavirus Response Coordinator.

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I was wrong.

Dr. Birx is in fact world renowned for her exemplary work as U.S. Global Health Coordinator and U.S. Special Representative for Global Health Diplomacy, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, known by its initials PEPFAR. She has been in government service since 1985, under both Democratic and Republican administrations doing what public health officials are charged to do — gather and analyze the facts and apply them with an unwavering commitment to eradicate the world’s deadliest diseases.

So how can she now sit looking down at her lap, visibly uncomfortable, while Trump tells the American people that injecting bleach might cure COVID-19? And how can she later compound the devastating effect of her inaction by appearing in the media not merely glossing over the errors, but seeming to justify them. At what point does a brilliant public health doctor jump up and correct misinformation that could harm people, even if that requires speaking truth to power?

Dr. Deborah Birx at a White House Press Briefing.

There are at least five possible reasons.

Reason 1. Is she simply naïve? I’ve worked with doctors who were great healers but oblivious to the politics of a situation. But I doubt Birx could have so successfully navigated the culture wars of HIV vaccine research if she were naïve.

Reason 2: Is she a dutiful public servant, whose military career taught her to obey orders even when her leader is wrong?

Reason 3. Does she believe she can do more good by staying inside the circle of power than outside of it? We don’t know what the conversations are behind closed doors before and after the briefings. Still, at what point would she have the moral courage to take a stand for sound public health practices when she knows people are literally dying for them?

Reason 4. Does she fear retribution if she crosses the president? She has plenty of evidence that people who challenge him don’t keep their positions very long. But why would she risk losing her stellar reputation to keep her job at this point in her long career?

Reason 5: I’m betting on this one: Co-option. “When a system of oppression has become institutionalized, it is almost unnecessary for individuals to be oppressive,” said the late feminist leader Florynce Kennedy.

The great late Floryence Kennedy.

Dr. Birx came of age within a culture that undervalues an entire gender, yet she fought her way to achieve her intentions to become a doctor within a male dominated profession. For women who are among the first to enter any profession, obedience to prevailing norms and not bucking the system is how you survive. Cooption happens when women undervalue their own strength and lose their own selves.

It’s not exactly like selling out. At least when you sell out, even though you lose your integrity, you pocket the profit. Selling out implies a conscious transaction, cutting a deal, and driving a bargain.

Co-option, on the other hand, can be a series of small, silent compromises, a chain reaction of resignations, a chipping away here or a minor capitulation there, so that you almost aren’t even aware that it’s going on. You oppress yourself, perhaps like Schlafly even opposing your own freedom to maintain the perceived safety of living under the oppressor’s authority. But the results can be — and often are — devastating.

Whatever the reasons, Dr. Birx has ceded the moral authority she built during her long and distinguished career. It’s a tragic, deadly #Leadershipfail.

PS: If you want to get some expert advice on how to have difficult conversations that matter in your own life and work, join me and my guest Stacey Engle, president of fierce for a free virtual happy hour live chat. That’s Thursday April 30 at 6:30 eastern time. Click here to register!

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