Chair's Column: Leading Through Difficult Times

By John H McEniry IV, Fagron North America, Fairhope, AL

A little more than 14 years ago, I attended my first ABA Health Law Section Emerging Issues in Health Law Conference (EMI).  At the time, I was a sixth-year associate who was beginning to dabble in healthcare regulatory work.  Bill Horton, who was a partner at my firm (and who has since become a close personal friend and colleague), urged me to attend EMI to further my education in areas of law where, frankly, I had very limited expertise or experience.  More importantly, Bill urged me to attend EMI so that I could meet the exceptionally friendly, interesting, and intelligent members and leaders of the Health Law Section, as those great folks would one day become mentors, colleagues, and friends upon whom I could call for professional assistance, personal advice, or just a friendly conversation.  That one suggestion by Bill 14 years ago literally and figuratively set the stage for the development of my career, as well as the development of many of my closest friendships.  You’ll hear more about that in a subsequent Column.

Amongst the many incredible folks whom I had the pleasure of meeting at my first EMI, I especially remember meeting Andy Demetriou.  Andy was a former Chair of the Section and had remained active in both the Section and the larger ABA (as he still is today).  He was highly respected, knew everybody, and was in high demand for professional discussions, friendly catching up, and various social functions with other leaders in the Health Law Section.  Yet, I specifically recall Andy making the time to get to know me, to introduce me to others, and to otherwise make this noob mid-level associate whose primary experience in health law was defending medical malpractice cases feel welcome.  Since that meeting, Andy and I have developed a personal and professional friendship.  Andy is one of the few lawyers who has worked in the somewhat niche area of pharmaceutical law on which I have focused over the past decade, so his insights have been particularly valuable to me (and, hopefully, mine to him).  Because Andy has successfully practiced law with Lamb & Kawakami and provided expert consulting services through BRG for many years, he was one of the first people from whom I sought advice when I decided to “hang a shingle” with the intent of splitting my time between expert consulting and practicing law.  Andy is one of the few Californians who cares to keep up with SEC sports and the sometimes peculiar decisions made by various leaders in my home state of Alabama, so he’s a joy to chat with over a cup of coffee or a couple of fingers of brown water.  Andy is also a heck of a writer.  I especially enjoy receiving his insights each year on the field of 68 teams playing the in the NCAA Basketball Tournament.  In all, the Health Law Section is lucky to have him, and I’m certainly lucky to know him.

So, what does the above have to do with Leading Through Difficult Times?  Please bear with me.  Earlier this week, I learned something new about Andy.  For two decades, Andy has served as Special Counsel, on a pro bono basis, to the Dwight Eisenhower Memorial Commission.  In 1999, this Commission was charged by Congress and the President with the construction of a memorial for President Eisenhower in the National Capital.  The Eisenhower Memorial was recently completed and was due to be dedicated on May 8, 2020, which was the 75th Anniversary of VE-Day.  The dedication was unfortunately postponed due to the national pandemic, but Andy nevertheless took the time to share some reflections regarding his time on the Commission, the difficult decisions and shifting political landscape that he and the Commissioners faced over the past 20 years, and his thoughts on leadership through the eyes and words of General and President Eisenhower.  Andy was kind enough to allow me to share his reflections in this Column.

COVID-19 has created unprecedented pressures on our personal and professional lives.  But, in many ways, some of our most difficult decisions as leaders, be it within our firms, companies, families, or individually, are immediately before us.  To date, most of us have had no choice but to shelter at home and “make do” in the face of those mandatory orders.  Today and in the days to come, though, we will be faced in many ways with more daunting decisions.  Decisions where governmental allowances to share space with others may arguably contradict with science and other objective evidence.  Decisions where even science and other objective evidence do not agree and are possibly influenced by the ideology or pecuniary interests of the persons or agencies overseeing or funding that science or study.  Decisions that not only affect ourselves and our families, but also affect our employees and their families.  Decisions where financial necessities or desperation might influence our willingness to potentially put ourselves and others at some increased physical risk.

I wish I had the correct answers to the questions immediately before us and the questions that will be presented to us in the days to come.  Unfortunately, I don’t.  None of us do.  Consistent with our decision-making processes when we’re not in a pandemic, all we can do is closely scrutinize available evidence in order to make decisions that are appropriate for our short-term needs and our long-term goals.  This is not just true for our businesses, but also our personal lives.  Further, evaluating available evidence through the lens of history and our personal experiences can be a great guide.  So, as we assess the current challenges before us, we can look at the issues faced by General Eisenhower during World War II and President Eisenhower during his term in office, his thought processes, and the ultimate decisions he made.  Outside of the decisions themselves, we can look at how General and President Eisenhower carried himself, built his teams, and treated his subordinates.  We can learn a lot … or be reminded of things that are easily forgotten in times of stress … through that lens of history.

Ike is not the only leader described in the Column, though.  Not by a long shot.  Bill Horton, while working and (I’m sure) enduring great professional and personal pressure to reacclimate himself to law firm life after many years in-house, nevertheless took the time to see the potential in and guide an associate with whom he had rarely worked.  That’s leadership.  Andy Demetriou, while being pulled in a thousand objectively more important directions, took the time to befriend and make that same associate feel welcome in a group of strangers.  That’s leadership.  Andy, who freely gave his time and expertise for two decades to a Commission whose charter was frequently frustrated by political whims, nevertheless persevered with his colleagues to succeed in building a monument appropriate for President Eisenhower.  That’s leadership.  Andy and Bill, both of whom manage busy personal and professional lives, still spend countless hours volunteering to serve the ABA because they believe in the preservation of the rule of law and equal access to justice.  That’s leadership.  Those are lenses worth looking through when leading during difficult times.

Though the current crisis might result in a temporary realignment of our priorities, let’s not forget our long-term goals.  Let’s not forget to see past the personal and professional challenges immediately before us, to remember how we got to a place where we could be entrusted to lead others, and to continue to prioritize our plans to get the folks who currently depend on us ready to lead.  As you consider those important decisions, please know that the Health Law Section stands ready to continue to provide you – both personally and as a leader of others – with substantive and networking opportunities to assist you both professionally and personally.  I continue to wish you my best for good health and prosperity during this trying time.

Without further ado, I offer “My Thoughts on May 8, 2020” by Andy Demetriou.

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My Thoughts on May 8, 2020

Andrew J. Demetriou

But for the current health emergency gripping the country, I would have spent this day joining hundreds of other citizens in celebration of the dedication of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C. My work on this project, as an advisor to the Commission which oversaw its design and construction, has consumed much of the past two decades. I take satisfaction from the fact that, while the formal dedication has been delayed, the edifice itself stands—as the symbolic recognition of a distinguished soldier and statesman, whose service to our Nation brooks few parallels.

In a way, the delay in the ceremony is in character with the history of the Memorial, as unexpected events have repeatedly changed the course of otherwise well-conceived plans.

  • As part of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission’s role early in its existence, extensive plans were made for a dedication of the Old Executive Office Building adjoining the White House as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, on September 12, 2001.
  • An opportunity to join the Eisenhower Memorial with the iconic Institute of Peace building in 2004 was unexpectedly derailed by late opposition and changed circumstances.
  • The selection of the eventual site was delayed as a result of a curious, and sometimes misunderstood, Congressional process by which a site in the protected areas of the capital must be proposed, and then not disapproved, in order to permit the construction of a memorial.
  • The choice of the site itself reflected a political compromise requiring significant discussion, as a portion of it sits in the Southeast quarter of Washington, D.C., thereby placing it as the only major memorial not situated entirely in the Northwest.
  • The process for choosing an architect engendered controversy. The selection of the justly renowned Frank Gehry attracted opposition from critics who believed that his designs would be at odds with their own cultural sensibilities and not appropriately honor Eisenhower. In the Washington we have come to know, these aesthetic differences of opinion quickly became political and highly partisan, fueled by attacks from columnists and internet personalities, which in turn motivated successive Chairs of the House Oversight Committee and the House Committee on Natural Resources to devote significant time and effort to the ultimately fruitless investigation of the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, with one report deeming the Memorial a “Five Star Folly.”
  • The design was subject to repeated changes to gain consensus among important constituents, until final agreement was achieved through the intervention of distinguished senior statesmen of the past and present.

The persistence of the dedicated Chairmen of the Commission, my dear friend and mentor Rocco Siciliano and Senator Pat Roberts, the elected and public Commissioners, who remained faithful to their charge, and the small but able staff, headed by General Carl Reddel and Victoria Tigwell and aided by the architectural and governmental design process insights of Daniel Feil, have sustained the memorialization process through many challenges. Frank Gehry and his talented team showed great patience and enormous flexibility in adapting the design while maintaining the vision for the Memorial. As a result, the Nation now has a fitting Memorial to Dwight David Eisenhower, with many novel elements that distinguish it from other memorials.

The date chosen for the dedication, May 8, 2020, was intended to coincide with the 75th Anniversary of a pivotal point in the 20th Century—the conclusion of World War II in Europe. This date is critical to the Eisenhower legacy and caused me to reflect on his personal characteristics and contrast his concept of leadership in difficult times with the current response to a serious national crisis.

Eisenhower was natively humble, a trait informed by his midwestern roots. His rise through the Army was mainly through staff positions, in which the development of teams to execute plans is crucial to achieving success. When he assumed command of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, he was not a commander in the field, but rather the builder of an unprecedented coalition of military officers from different backgrounds, many with impressive egos which made them difficult to manage, as well as strong willed political leaders over whom he had no direct authority. Eisenhower’s great genius lay in keeping these individuals focused on the central objective of the war—the destruction of Axis forces.

At two of the most critical points in the conflict, Eisenhower’s perspective on leadership in the face of significant events was made apparent in own his words. In the Invasion Order of June 6, 1944, he began with the following:

You are about to embark on the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven for many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-living people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies, and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

It is notable that nowhere in this passage, nor elsewhere in the entire message, does he refer to his own leadership or role in this invasion. In fact, the only time the word “I” appears in the Order is where he expresses his personal confidence in the troops to execute their assigned tasks. The sole sentiment conveyed at this momentous time was the support of a joint effort, involving millions of individuals, to accomplish a mission that was critical to winning the war.

Just as enlightening is a second message, prepared the same day, as against the prospect that the invasion failed. In a handwritten note to be issued in such an event, Eisenhower revealed another aspect of his philosophy:

Our landings in the Cherbourg-[Le] Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and this place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air [forces] and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attributes to the attempt, it is mine alone.

The mark of his greatness as a leader is reflected in the contrast between these expressions—success is the result of collective effort, while failure is personalized.

Eleven months after D-Day, Eisenhower was faced with composing a message announcing the German surrender at Rheims, France. His subordinates struggled with various statements magnifying the importance of the Allied leadership in the war effort and celebrating the defeat of the Axis powers. Eisenhower discarded these drafts, and took up the pen himself, declaring in the most economical of language: “The mission of this Allied Force was fulfilled at 0241, local time, May 7, 1945.”

As with his D-Day Order, the emphasis is on the collective success of the great forces he commanded, with no mention of personal achievement.

His leadership skills, developed in the crucible of global war, served him well as the 34th President. He was not concerned with commanding the airwaves and promoting himself; to the contrary he understood that government properly functions through effective institutions, not personal initiative. He viewed the role of the President as being inherent in the term—that is, to “preside” over the conduct of the Executive Branch, as discharged by responsible officers he appointed. In many cases, he practiced “hidden hand” governance, in which he permitted subordinates to articulate policies, providing him with some distance through which to judge, and sometimes reevaluate, the ultimate implementation of his strategies. An artifact of this style is that it was unappreciated at the time. The popular wisdom was that Eisenhower was a passive leader and that the policies in his administration were in fact conceived by more visible cabinet secretaries, such as John Foster Dulles and Herbert Brownell. It is only through careful review of now declassified materials, and with the passage of time, that a proper appreciation and context for Eisenhower’s Presidency has emerged, and his exercise of Presidential leadership was entirely consistent with his successful leadership in wartime.

Perhaps the best expression by Eisenhower of the qualities of leadership is the following:

Leadership consists of nothing but taking responsibility for everything that goes wrong and giving your subordinates credit for everything that goes well.

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We find ourselves in a time of enormous turmoil and uncertainty about the future. In spite of efforts by the Administration to compare the response to the pandemic to a nation on a “wartime footing” and inspire collective action for the public good, large parts of the population have lost confidence in our elected officials to provide hope and direction as we attempt to return to a sense of normalcy. We would be well served to recall the lessons imparted by Dwight Eisenhower, and encourage our government officials to abandon the self-serving, falsely triumphal and situational messages that emanate from Washington and elsewhere, as they do not represent the best of the American spirit or the leadership we need.