Over the past few months, the headlines have been dominated by horrendous counts of sick individuals and — even more sadly — deaths due to COVID-19.
But unfortunately, the most threatening atrocity to humanity here isn’t the coronavirus itself; instead, it is the viral spread of confusion that has made a difficult situation into an epic worldwide failure.
It doesn’t take an epidemiologist to understand that this pandemic blew through multiple stop-gap measures designed to keep the virus at bay; namely, closing borders to international travel, the institution of social distancing, and the closing of public spaces to avoid the spread of disease.
However, leaders instituted these measures too late — and, even when they did, we saw images on TV of folks enjoying beaches, playing together in large groups, and even flat-out ignoring the recommendation to “stay safe, stay home.”
Are those folks just uncaring and selfish? Or is there some other factor at play here that shows us a much bigger, much more frightening picture of the society we’ve become?
How Rampant Dishonesty Created a Global Pandemic (and What We Can All Do about It)
Why did we have an explosion of cases here, in a country that’s supposed to have the brightest minds in the world and the most organized system for dealing with adversity?
The answer is that the American public has been lied to so many times, been subject to so many half-truths and conflicts of interest, that we’ve grown immune to authority. In a world where doctors can be bought, drug makers put profits over people, and politicians have a greater incentive to protect themselves than protect their constituents, it’s no surprise that many folks across our society looked at this disease with skepticism.
Is this for real? How much danger are we really in? Is this a political stunt, or an excuse to sell more drugs? Perhaps the toilet-paper manufacturers are behind this …
As odd as some of that rationale may appear, crazier things have happened. And to make matters worse, few leaders were willing to be completely forthright, honest and transparent about what was emerging from Wuhan, China — especially in the beginning, when some leaders were reluctant to admit that COVID-19 was coming at all, and in a spectacularly devastating way.
The greatest gift we humans have is the power of imagination. We’re creative beings, able to conjure wild stories and then consider those fantasies as potential futures. The problem is, if we’re not given the facts — with clarity and objectivity — then we naturally enter into this proclivity for fantasy and fill the void with our own version of what’s really happening out there.
In this case, our leaders did not step up early enough to sign warning bells with cool objectivity, clear data, and fact-based projections of what could come next. We didn’t get the honesty we deserved — nay, needed — in order to logically assess what was coming our way.
To make matters worse, the news media saw the clouds parting and the sun coming out — their moment to shine, their moment to woo millions of eyeballs that would become glued to explosive stories about horrific numbers and sensational updates (with all the colorful adjectives that we emotional beings simply can’t resist).
Therefore, we ran amok. We bought toilet paper en masse. We filled the honesty-void with different, biased versions of what would come true. To some, that meant staying home and washing their hands obsessively. To others, it meant calling up some friends for a stress-busting game of beach volleyball.
But no matter in which direction we ran, we didn’t run together. And that’s because we had no leadership — no one to lay this thing out honestly, transparently, objectively, so we could see with our own eyes that we were in good hands and that there was a plan and that there was no reason to do anything but what we were being asked to do.
Dishonesty Got Us into this Mess. Now, Only Honesty Can Get Us Out
In the United States, we get the power of supporting individuals and organizations with our vote. In the private sector, we do so with our wallets — we literally vote by spending money with companies that share our values.
Right now, CEOs in a variety of sectors are doing wonderful things, from Zoom’s CEO offering his software for free to students to Allstate deciding to refund customers because — naturally — fewer people are driving and needing insurance.
We should look for the same level of self-awareness and honesty in all our leaders from the private sector to the public sector. And these leaders will be easy to spot: they’ll be the ones thinking rationally about what’s happening, admitting what they know and don’t know, showing their data, and explaining in detail why they’re making the decisions they’re making.
It’s not rocket science, but it is the most effective way that we humans learn to trust one another. When we see for ourselves what others are doing, we can trust what they say and what they recommend. Conversely, the more our leaders hide their thinking (or, worse, seem to depend on subjective biases over objective facts), the less we’ll follow.
If we indeed learn from this pandemic, we — as a global society — will be positioned to ensure that such a horrendous (and avoidable) disaster never plagues us again. But the lesson isn’t about epidemiology, or science, or how to prevent viruses from spreading; instead, the lesson is about how we must build trust before we can ever hope to act as a unified team.
Without uniting in action against a common enemy, we will never win. And the truth is, all it takes to win together is a return to that best policy we’ve all known about since preschool: honesty.
Peter Kozodoy is the author of Honest to Greatness: How Today’s Greatest Leaders Use Brutal Honesty to Achieve Massive Success. He is an Inc. 5000 serial entrepreneur, TEDx speaker, and business coach who works with organizations and their leaders to help them overcome self-limiting bullsh*t and use honesty to achieve greatness. His articles on leadership and entrepreneurship have appeared in Forbes, Inc., The Huffington Post, PR Daily and more. He holds a BA in economics from Brandeis University and an MBA from Columbia Business School.