This past week, Mayor Michael Melham announced that he’d tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies, and he urged residents to get tested as well to help advance treatment of the virus.
Well, had it only been that simple.
The mayor wasted a golden opportunity to demonstrate leadership by example. Instead of delivering a public service announcement centered on the need for more antibody testing to help advance treatment, the mayor recounted a story centered around himself.
Both the media and laypersons have picked apart aspects of Melham’s story. NJ Advance Media has published articles on NJ.com, calling his claims “unfounded” and an example of “voluntary stupidity.” Persons on social media have pointed out that despite his claims of violent illness the weekend after the New Jersey League of Municipalities conference — and a sore throat that lasted for weeks after — he looked and sounded healthy at a Town Council meeting two days later. Melham has partially walked back some of his comments.
Putting aside the questionable parts of his story, the mayor failed on a basic level: he made the story about himself. Good leadership is about others: inspiring, guiding and involving other people. The best stories leaders can tell are ones that speak about how great things are accomplished by people working together.
What could have been a shining moment for Mayor Melham to exercise leadership was swallowed up by his need to talk about himself.
Belleville residents, and all who read Melham’s story, would have been better served had he stuck to a message of, “Please get tested. You can help efforts to find better treatment or a vaccine for COVID-19.” People didn’t need to hear Melham’s conjectures about if or how he may have contracted the virus, or how his doctor tested him because of his “daily work with the public.” There are millions of healthcare workers, doctors, firefighters, police officers, EMTs, mail carriers, utility workers and many other essential workers who work daily with the public; that they quietly do what they need to do to stay healthy and protect the public, and then throw themselves back into the work of serving people during a public health emergency is a testament to their heroism.
There is another possible effect the mayor should consider about his annoucement: negligence lawsuits against the Township. The current research on COVID-19 has not yet concluded that persons who have recovered from COVID-19 or have the virus’s antibodies develop immunity to re-infection, and Harvard Medical School states that a person with COVID-19 might still be contagious up to 8 days after feeling better. If you combine this readily-available information, the mayor’s admission that he was later “suspicious” that his illness had been COVID-19, and that he was obviously back at work as mayor as early as the Tuesday after his weekend of illness, it could be open season on Belleville with negligence lawsuits, even if they are later found to be without merit.
Belleville taxpayers will not happily pay to defend the Township against such lawsuits. Some may take issue with us for even mentioning this possibility, but it’s probable that in our litigious society certain corners of the legal industry have already set their eyes on COVID-19 exposure litigation.
Years ago, this writer attended graduate school to study counseling. One of the things the professors could not stress strongly enough was that self-disclosure — or a counselor sharing something about themselves to a client — had to be purposeful: to gain rapport, to validate a client’s feelings or experiences, or another therapeutic purpose. Everything that a counselor or therapist says or does is for a reason; to talk about oneself without purpose is counterproductive and could actually harm the therapeutic relationship.
The same can easily be said of a politician speaking to constituents. The elected often love to bask in the spotlight, but there is almost always a way to communicate a crucial message without talking about oneself.