In April, 2008, President Obama said this about vaccines: “We’ve seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Nobody knows exactly why. There are some people who are suspicious that it’s connected to vaccines and triggers, but — this person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it. Part of the reason I think it’s very important to research it is those vaccines are also preventing huge numbers of deaths among children and preventing debilitating illnesses like polio. And so we can’t afford to junk our vaccine system. We’ve got to figure out why is it that this is happening so that we are starting to see a more normal, what was a normal, rate of autism. Because if we keep on seeing increases at the rate we’re seeing we’re never going to have enough money to provide all the special needs, special education funding that’s going to be necessary.”
By 2015, his position had changed when he told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie “I understand that there are families that in some cases are concerned about the effect of vaccinations. The science is, you know, pretty indisputable. We’ve looked at this again and again. There is every reason to get vaccinated, but there aren’t reasons to not.”
And when celebrities like Donald Trump and politicians like Gov. Chris Christie and Rep. Rand Paul and Bill Mahr echo Jenny McCarthy’s very vocal beliefs that “Time magazine’s article on the autism debate reports that the experts are certain ‘vaccines don’t cause autism; they don’t injure children; they are the pillar of modern public health.’ I say, ‘that’s a lie and we’re sick of it,’” is it any wonder that mothers and fathers are confused?
Leadership Starts At The Top
The central tenets of vision, strategy and alignment—a basic leadership discipline—stresses that highly effective leaders engage others in creating a clear, compelling, and inspiring vision, and communicate it in a way that everyone understands it, and in a way that motivates and inspires people to work as a team toward common goals. Leaders must clearly define and paint an exciting path to the future, while providing ethical and logical reasons as to why they’re moving in a specific direction.
This certainly is not the case regarding vaccines. There is no central direction as there was years ago when children were required to be vaccinated before they started school.
The new Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, has taken a more lenient approach. He doesn’t think there should be a federal law requiring childhood vaccinations but he does encourage parents to have their children vaccinated. Unfortunately, the confusion remains. Apparently, there are no strong convictions about vaccines emanating from the top about requiring vaccines even as an epidemic of measles breaks out, after having virtually eradicated it in this country 15 years ago.
The Importance of Setting Priorities
Another part of the problem lies with priorities . . . or more correctly, the failure to establish the right priorities. The measles outbreak has parents across the country rightfully concerned, but here again, attenuation of the rigorous medical discipline that conquered the disease is missing. Untold numbers of children go unvaccinated. Parents’ wishes take precedent to the common good. Is it not to be expected that the disease will spread rapidly across the country as so many parents become the Surgeon General of their own households?
Focusing on the right priorities unleashes talent and energy and creates a culture where each person shares a common focus and executes around priorities. Everyone must have the same purpose, principles, and focus; they must know who they are, what they are trying to do, where they are trying to go, why they need to get there, and how they will cooperate. It must be internalized. Leaders get people on the same page, executing around priorities, which releases talent and energy. But that energy must be directed, not left to everybody’s discretion as the issue of vaccinations is today.
It Takes Courage To Do What’s Right
It takes courage to lead despite opposition. The issue of vaccinations is a prime example. True leaders maintain credibility and avoid pitfalls by being honest, forthright, and open; their values, allegiances and priorities are beyond reproach. Their strong character and integrity are manifest by their walking the walk and talking the talk. True leaders will do what’s best for the country. If that means vaccinations for all children, they’ll set aside political considerations and do what’s right.
Highly effective leaders set goals that lead. Well-defined goals are among the most effective tools available to any leader, yet too many leaders don’t set goals that lead their people in the right direction. The purpose of this discipline is to produce clear and measurable goals. Pursuing these goals will lead people to align their daily activities with the vital few objectives set in the strategy.
In this case the missing ingredient is lack of a cohesive vaccination policy. Our country’s leaders have to take hold of the problem and establish clear, well-defined goals, put a plan in action, then execute it until the country has eliminated these preventable diseases.