Apologies and public accountability
Just over a week ago, the president of the Jamaica Medical Doctors' Association (JMDA), Dr Alfred Dawes, and the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health, Dr Harvey, were involved in a public discourse over the proposal by the Ministry of Health to introduce a shift system for doctors employed in the public-health system.
Dr Dawes and his constituency expressed strong opposition to the proposal, despite the assurances from the permanent secretary that the precise details are yet to be finalised, and in the course of his comments, Dr Dawes made some comments that raised eyebrows. Some of those comments were apparently of such a tone and content that the minister of health indicated in Parliament that Dr Dawes was being called upon to apologise to the permanent secretary.
It would appear that Dr Dawes was himself sensitive to the fact that his comments had created a breach and reportedly disclosed that he and Dr Harvey had had a heart-to-heart talk like "grown men" and had agreed to "let bygones be bygones".
I worked for a few years in the health sector, including as CEO of a hospital, and consequently have some exposure to some of the dynamics of the health sector. The heart-to-heart talk that Dr Dawes reportedly had with Dr Harvey brought back memories of my time as CEO when certain inappropriate comments were made by members of the medical fraternity, and when those comments were acted upon in a particular manner, there was the criticism by doctors that a more appropriate response would be to "sit down like big men and thrash it out".
I am solidly of the view that public misconduct, or comments made in public which are found to be unacceptable, must be corrected in the public if the correction is to be regarded as credible.
Roger Schwarz, in a March 25, 2013 Harvard Business Review blog titled 'How Criticising in Private Undermines Your Team', argues that a team member's accountability is not just to the leader of the team, but to the team as an entire unit. Thus, when a team member fails to function at his or her expected level and this conduct (underperformance) affects the other members of the team, the feedback given should be made publicly.
Schwarz advances a number of reasons for this position, including that accountability is ultimately a public matter - and when steps are taken to remedy lack of accountability, it must be done at a time and place at which other team members can be assured that steps are being taken to remedy a breach and the occasion used to highlight important lessons for other team members.
None of us knows what Dr Dawes said to Dr Harvey. We know that Dr Dawes' comments were of such a nature that the minister of health took an interest in them and demanded a retraction of portions. The context in which the comments were made was a public one. Dr Harvey's involvement in the public discourse was not in his private (doctor-to-doctor) capacity. It was in his capacity of a public official. Dr Dawes was speaking as head of a recognised entity that engages with the Government of Jamaica and was not speaking in a private capacity. A private discussion to end the matter is unacceptable.
If Dr Dawes is of the view that his comments warranted a post-expression sit-down and rose to such a level as to be classified as something to shove into the past, those comments having been heard by thousands of persons, some of whom found aspects highly inappropriate, ought to be clarified publicly. A private heart-to-heart talk is not good enough. The row could be worsened by Dawes' insistence, as reported in last Friday's Observer, that he would be offering no public apology.
The president of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, by contrast, has shown the mettle and measure of a leader. He had made public comments concerning a decision of the minister of agriculture, and having reflected on his comments and making the determination that those comments were not consistent with what his philosophy and practice of leadership were, he publicly apologised.
Erika Andersen, in a Leadership Blog published in 2012, states that the leaders for whom she has had the greatest respect are those who have shown the willingness to readily apologise when they are wrong, and, conversely, the leaders she has had the most difficulty respecting are those who seem constitutionally unable to admit error.
She argues that apologising freely requires courage, and I would suggest that Mr Mahfood's conduct was a display of rare courage and can have no other effect than causing others to look up to him and respect him. Thus, as Andersen suggests, when someone apologises, he or she is placing honour above personal comfort and self-protection, and, in so doing, inspires others.
My position is not that a public official, or any person holding a leadership and decision-making position (whether a minister, permanent secretary, CEO or bishop), is not to be taken to task when the need arises, or publicly questioned, or told to his or her face that they are lying if the facts support such claims. I think we, as citizens, would be doing ourselves a disservice if we allow public officials to mislead us.
But the evidence in the two instances cited (permanent secretary for health and minister of agriculture) above does not suggest that either of the two public officials acted dishonourably. Rather, it would appear that the representatives of two interest groups made comments publicly which warranted revisiting. In the one case, the interest-group rep chose what, in my opinion, was the less courageous and less manly route by dealing with the matter of his public comments privately, while, in the other, the rep chose a bold and rare route of a public clarification.
- Dr Canute Thompson is an ethicist, leadership coach, management consultant and author. His latest book is 'Locating the Epicentre of Effective (Educational) Leadership in the 21st Century'. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.