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Legends In Their Own Minds

New York Army National Guard registers people at a COVID-19 Mobile Testing Center in Glenn Island Park, New Rochelle, New York.
COVID-19 testing in New Rochelle, N.Y. Photo by Sgt. Amouris Coss, courtesy The National Guard.

By their own accounts, Rick Bright and Rebekah Jones were key players in the fight against COVID-19, although most of us had never heard of them until they lost their positions.

Bright and Jones are at different stages in their professional lives, yet they seem to share a trait all too familiar to CEOs and human resource managers: They are legends in their own minds. Whatever their talents – apparently considerable in the cases of Jones and Bright – keeping “legends” on a team can be more trouble than it is worth, thanks to their inflated self-importance and their tendency to take being overruled as an unbearable personal affront.

Bright, 53, filed a federal whistleblower complaint after he was transferred out of his job as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. That position genuinely made him a key figure in the urgent push to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus that produced the current pandemic. Bright holds a doctorate in immunology and virology from Emory University, exactly the academic background we would want for someone in that position.

But technical skills are not the only ones necessary to succeed in a high-level management position within a complex organization – and there is probably no organization more complex than the U.S. federal government. The government’s sprawling effort to combat COVID-19 involves almost every facet of American life, from health care to economics to military preparedness.

The person presently in charge of that vast effort is the occupant of the Oval Office, one Donald J. Trump. Trump will receive his performance review from American voters in November. If they don’t like the job he is doing, they will furnish his termination notice effective in January 2021.

By most accounts, Bright took strong exception to Trump’s promotion of the off-label use of anti-malarial drugs as a treatment for COVID-19 in late March and early April. Bright was hardly alone in his skepticism. Nor was he alone in his efforts within the administration to avoid endorsing such use of the drugs (which practitioners could legally prescribe anyway) due to their potential for adverse side effects. But Bright crossed a line when he leaked internal emails to Reuters to promote his argument. In this, too, he is hardly alone in the leak-prone Trump administration, but this does not insulate him from responsibility.

Bright’s transfer moved him to a position at the National Institutes of Health that would give him responsibility for developing and deploying new COVID-19 testing programs. It is another important function as the economy reopens. Yet it is not nearly as critical as the hoped-for development, selection and rollout of a vaccine on a scale and timeline never before attempted. Although there is no public indication that his $285,000 salary has been reduced, Bright viewed this transfer as a retaliatory demotion from his prior post, to which he was appointed by then-President Obama in 2016.

Bright’s whistleblower complaint drew support from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which found grounds for an investigation and recommended Bright be put back in his former post while it is pending. The administration has demurred. While continuing to draw his salary, Bright chose first to take sick leave and then to use accrued vacation time. His stated reason for claiming sick leave was hypertension, which you and I know as high blood pressure. It is one of the most readily treated chronic conditions associated with aging, and it seemed to be no burden when Bright held his prior job.

Jones, meanwhile, is a 30-year-old geospatial and data analyst. Or at least she was, until the Florida Department of Health fired her on May 5. Jones has described herself as the architect of Florida’s COVID-19 data monitoring dashboard, although it is probably more accurate to see her as its initial implementer and lead manager. The widely used state-run dashboard was built on a design similar to the global dashboard run by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and reportedly uses the same underlying platform.

Most Floridians were unaware of Jones until the statewide (and later national) press picked up a story that Florida Today published on May 18, nearly two weeks after her firing. The story reported Jones’ “heartfelt farewell.” It also covered her allegation that she was removed “largely (arguably entirely)” due to her commitment to transparent reporting. “I would not expect the new team to continue the same level of accessibility and transparency that I made central to the process during the first two months,” she wrote in a note to subscribers to the dashboard’s email list. In another email, one to a local CBS affiliate, Jones said she was removed because she refused to “manually change data to drum up support for the plan to reopen.”

It seems that nobody noticed, or at least publicly reported, any major change in the state’s data reporting before Jones’ farewell. The press did report extensively, however, on some researchers’ alarm at the suggestion that Gov. Ron DeSantis would manipulate or suppress data to support his reopening of the state’s economy.

For his part, DeSantis at first seemed unaware of Jones’ existence. His spokesperson later said Jones was fired for “insubordination.” DeSantis eventually got around to saying that Jones had refused to accept direction about how data should be verified before being incorporated into the state’s statistics. His rebuttals also drew attention to Jones’ somewhat checkered personal history, including run-ins with the law for cyberstalking and other alleged aggressive behavior in Florida and, earlier, in Louisiana.

Some of the press coverage initially claimed Jones held a doctoral degree from Florida State University. She does not. It was a sloppy but understandable error, possibly the result of an ambiguously worded personal curriculum vitae, which Jones herself seems to have posted. It is easy to read the document in a way that indicates Jones received a Ph.D. in 2018, although the CV also notes her dissertation had only a “working title.” This implies that she never completed and defended it.

In any event, Florida’s data dashboard continues to function in Jones’ absence. All COVID-19 data reporting is noisy, especially at very short time intervals, making quality control an ongoing and somewhat subjective process. Not every county, state or nation counts infections and deaths the same way. Sometimes counts are also backlogged or delayed in reporting to central authorities. This leads to dips and spikes in daily counts that smooth out over time, subject to later correction.

Reasonable people can disagree over how to design and operate a reporting system. But reasonable people, especially young people in lower and midlevel positions, ought to expect even their fervently held opinions to be overruled on occasion. They should report deliberate falsification or other misconduct, of course. But not every debatable decision rests on questionable or nefarious motives.

Like Trump, DeSantis will get his performance review in due course. The governor’s will arrive in Florida’s 2022 election. By then, Floridians should have ample time to assess how DeSantis performed in dealing with an unprecedented, complex crisis.

Rebekah Jones had a much more limited set of responsibilities. She only had to manage a data dashboard and answer to its users, including policymakers like DeSantis. She did not have to decide how to use that data to deploy state resources, or whether it was safe enough to let a hair stylist go back to work in Tampa or Tallahassee, or even how to define “safe enough” amid a pandemic where simply “safe” is not an available option.

It takes a pretty big ego to cope with big responsibilities. Sometimes the ego develops faster than the responsibilities, and that can be a problem. It is one that is familiar if you run, or manage talent for, an organization of your own.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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