Facts Matter: Leadership and the Coronavirus
The coronavirus (recently given a real name, COVID-19) has thrown the world into disarray. China has borne the brunt, of course. But COVID-19 has also caused concern globally as it has spread to other countries. The disease hasn’t only affected health, but economies, too. With Chinese workers forced to stay home, production has suffered. That’s already affecting global supply chains and markets, and will likely continue to disrupt them.
The future will show us the extent Americans feel the effects of COVID-19. For now, though, the disease reminds me about some things that are worth considering again. And unless we address the fundamental underlying problem, we will continue to invite one crisis after another. (I write more about the role of leadership in my on-line book project here.)
1. Honesty is the best policy. And honesty takes courage. The global community criticized China harshly for how it handled SARS — and there’s plenty of criticism for the Chinese government today, too. It tried to hide bad news…hoping it would go away.
But here’s something I learned early in my Army career: bad news doesn’t get better with time. That’s especially true with something like this. Wishing it would go away doesn’t make it so. It takes moral courage to admit the embarrassing fact. It takes gumption to bring up the topic that’s hard to discuss. But in a case like this, it needs to be done.
In part, this has to do with a government’s responsibility to its people. The liberal democratic idea (which has nothing to do with the groups Americans call liberals or Democrats) says that governments exist for the people, not the other way around. But when a government endangers its people in order to prevent humiliation, that’s wrong. There are additional cultural hurdles here which are compounding the problem by inhibiting transparency and response. Health and political challenges should not be conflated.
That’s not to say a government has to release all its data. There’s a good reason state secrets are secret. In my Army years, I held a top secret clearance, and I understand that our general population doesn’t need to know some things, and that some information can be dangerous if it gets out. Since I’m retired now, I’ve given up that security clearance — and I’m OK being in the dark about some things.
But there’s got to be a good reason for keeping secrets secret. And avoiding embarrassment just doesn’t cut it.
Li Wenliang, who died of the virus earlier this month, worked to overcome a government coverup. Showing the courage that most humans share, he tried to do the right thing despite a government that chose a different path placing their nation — and world — at risk.
2. You can ignore the facts…but they won’t ignore you. Running from the facts doesn’t make them go away. Governments that routinely hide the facts from their citizens don’t do themselves any favors since the facts always catch up. Likewise, companies that hide bad news from shareholders also fall into that trap.
China is re-learning this lesson now: avoiding realities doesn’t make them less real and doesn’t prevent their consequences. Instead, avoiding realities means planning based on intuition or, worse political interest, and adopting policies that rely on expedience, not data. Those might work every once in a while, but, when they fail, damage is often compounded.
And when it comes to the facts, stakeholders and the public have to know that data, science, fact, and trained expertise are driving decision-making. Instead of choosing to believe the ideas we’d prefer were true, we have to believe the truth…even when it’s ugly.
That means that when it comes to COVID-19, we can acknowledge the seriousness of the disease and elect to take proper precautions personally and globally. And at the same time, we can understand that the “ordinary” flu is a far greater threat right now to Americans. So, keep the coronavirus in your sights but get your normal flu shots as well.
We all tend to use intuition rather than data — to our detriment. We fear dramatic but statistically improbable mishaps like shark attacks and fiery airplane crashes, but climb into a car without thinking twice. And worse, we text while driving. Our intuitions, hunches, and feelings are only part of the equation. We need to understand we can’t trust them alone — and actively work to act on facts rather than feeling.
Which doesn’t mean there’s no place for feeling or intuition. It’s just that we need to know the facts first.
Deployed to Iraq, our feelings about conditions in the country were beside the point. We relied on data, taken from a variety of sources. We carefully tracked it and modified our tactics based on it. I can tell you from experience, sometimes intelligence reports are perplexing or downright contradictory. But it’s dangerous to ignore them without good reason.
The same thing’s true in business. When I ran RideScout, we used complex pools of data and customer interviews to deliver what our riders wanted. In an increasingly complicated world, companies who disregard data are at much greater risk. My nonprofit, USTomorrow, uses data gathered by polling and other sources to get reveal solutions and pathways most likely to achieve the bipartisan success we can build on and our country needs.
Data, rather than hunches, should help us form our priorities as individuals and a society. As the political season heats up, put the issues often used to divide our communities — gun violence, social security, or our environment, for example — through your personal “data sensor.” Make sure your hearing — and responding to facts. If you’re not, you’re likely not getting the full story.
And just like in the case of COVID-19, it’ll only make it worse.
China thought it could ignore the facts…and now we’re all in danger of learning the truth the hard way.
Until next time,
Learn more here: www.JosephKopser.com