Steven Covey in his 1990 classic, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, makes the distinction between what he calls character ethics and marketing ethics. Character ethics are governed by a commitment to transparency and grounded in the belief that one should be authentic and be committed to truthful speaking. Marketing ethics, on the other hand, are about creating impressions, directing people away from the facts, creating palatable narratives, and placing self-interest and self-image above and beyond all other considerations.
Dead babies at Victoria Jubilee Hospital
In mid-October, news broke that there was a spike in deaths of neonates at the Victoria Jubilee Hospital (VJH) due to an outbreak of some bacterial infections. The records indicate that seven babies died in July, and according to Health and Wellness Minister Christopher Tufton, he was advised of these deaths in late August. The Minister did not advise the public or the Cabinet, at that point, he however engaged the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) for expert advice. A further six babies died the weeks following July bringing the total number of deaths to thirteen.
Minister Tufton is adamant that but for his delay in advising the Prime Minister, his handling of the situation was appropriate. One key element of the Minister’s defence was that because his focus was on handling the problem and wanting to prevent public panic, he did not make the matter publicly known. In an email to Minister Tufton which I later posted on Twitter, I inquired of Minister Tufton whether it would not have been wiser to inform the public while giving assurances about managing the problem, in order to ensure, among other things, that unsuspecting expectant mothers do not walk into danger.
The Minister responded thus:
|“The issues are more: |
1. Fix the problem
2. Support those directly affected
3. Avoid panic and hysteria in a context where a critical institution providing several life- saving services could be affected – with limited alternatives
4. Importantly, incoming patients were not at risk as areas affected were isolated.
These decisions are never easy, and all come with risks. What is important to note is that there was no intention to hide info. Btw, apart from your obvious political choices, which I respect, professionally as a communicator don’t you think there should be a valid discussion on when the public’s interest is best served holding versus releasing info?”
Tufton’s Action Assessed with Reference to Covey’s Ethics Contrasts
Using Covey’s contrasts of character versus marketing ethics as a point of reference for analyzing Minister Tufton’s actions, some instructive questions arise, among them:
- What was the Minister’s priority when faced with the facts? Self-preservation or the protection of the public?
- How did the Minister frame the problem? Did he seek to minimize or state it baldly and dispassionately?
- When the matter came to the public’s attention, what was the Minister’s approach? Did he regard the public as having a right to raise questions or was he dismissive of the questions the public raised?
The answers to those questions can be found in, or inferred from, both the public utterances of the Minister as well as the email cited above. A further analysis of Minister Tufton’s comments reveals several dangers and pitfalls. I discuss four of these.
- Denigration of political bias. The implication from the Minister is that political bias is an obstacle to responsible engagement in political discourse. This position of the Minister would disqualify him, and all politicians from receiving the benefit of having their utterances being seen as anything but the fruits of political biases. Is that how the Minister wishes us to see our individual and collective capacities for engaging in public discourse given that we all have such biases? I completely reject the suggestion of Minister Tufton and contend that given that we all have biases, the issue becomes how those biases are managed.
- Either / Or thinking. One of the weaknesses which afflicts leaders when faced with crises in that of falling into either / or thinking rather than seeing the solution as requiring a mix of alternatives. This tendency is a major fallacy in leadership decision-making. The Minister could have done both things he saw as, or determined to be, binary opposites. He could have both informed the public while at the same time solving the problem.
- Claiming success without evidence. The Minister claims that what he has done, and how he handled the situation was the right way; the only minor flaw, he contends, is that he did not inform the Prime Minister at an earlier stage. But what is the evidence that the situation was handled well? What does that look like? Does it mean that…
a. the outbreak is contained and the probability of another minimized?
b. staffing and cleaning problems at the health facility have been sustainably addressed?
c. expectant mothers have greater confidence in the facility?
d. the public has greater confidence in the words of the Minister on this and other matter?
The problem of making unsubstantiated claims is a problem of political leadership, and the public needs to be more vigilant in demanding specifics. It bears noting that Minister Tufton had, some years ago, describes Jamaica Moves as a great success. The evidence to substantiate those claims is still not available.
4. Convenient changes in standards of assessment. Minister Tufton in an article published on Sunday October 30, 2022, goes to lengths to argue that the dead-baby crisis which occurred under a previous Minister of Health, Fenton Ferguson, in 2015 and those occurring under his watch, are not the same. One is hard-pressed to see the differences which are favourable to Minister Tufton, but as has been widely recognized, Minister Ferguson brought the matter to the public’s attention almost immediately as he learnt of it, while Minister Tufton waited several weeks.
So, what is disclosed from Minister Tufton’s claim appears to be an attempt to suggest that the rules of accountability to which others are subject do not apply to him. One of the grave errors leaders make is to give the impression, or behave as though, they are above the law or that the rules that apply to others do not apply to them. This provision of “mout mek fi talk”, and supported by others in the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), notably former Speaker of the House Pearnel Charles who said it is “disrespectful” to call for Minister Tufton to resign, despite the fact that there was a universal call by the JLP, along with the Private Sector Organization of Jamaica (PSOJ) for Minister Ferguson to resign.
One of my biggest concerns about Minister Tufton’s decision to keep secret, for several weeks, information about the death of the babies, is that it appears to be a pattern with how he handles bad news in his ministry. Minister Tufton’s approach reveals a preoccupation with what Covey describes as marketing ethics. And perhaps no one should be surprised at his craft in this regard given that he is an expert, having earned a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) in marketing.
But, as Covey’s description of marketing ethics shows, a person who is pre-occupied therewith, may, in the interest of self-preservation place others in grave danger. This potential is not only real, but it is arguable that it has occurred under the leadership of Minister Tufton.
It is to be recalled that in 2018 it was disclosed that Minister Tufton had received a report from PAHO in 2017 concerning noxious fumes (of a carcinogenic nature) detected at the Cornwall Regional Hospital (CRH). Despite receiving this report in 2017, it was not until 2018 that the public was made aware of the findings of the report. The fundamental question is: Why did the Minister decide not to reveal the findings of that report the moment he learnt of the findings? Some additional questions also arise now, as Covey’s “character ethics versus marketing ethics” theory is examined, as well as based on what we now know about the neonates who died at VJH. These questions include:
a. How was the withholding of that information acting in the interest of staff, patients, and other users of, and visitors to, the facility whose knowledge of the information could lead them to take action to protect their health?
b. Was the real reason for withholding the information a strategy to minimize the potential adverse impact of its release on personal political fortunes?
The broad lesson from Minister Tufton’s handling of the crises at VJH in 2022 and CRH in 2017/18 is that leaders character ethic (which is rooted in care for others) should govern the actions of leaders, rather than marketing ethic (which is rooted in care about one’s personal political fortunes). Unless there are consequences to leaders whose conduct and decision-making are rooted in the elements of the selfishness of marketing ethics, society will remain at grave risk.
Professor Canute Thompson is Professor of Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership at the School of Education, The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, and Head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning. He is author of two award-winning books and articles, among his collection of eight books and over a dozen journal articles, and the operator of leadershipreimagination.com website.