Real Leaders

It Takes Only One: The Leaders’ COVID Moral Choice

As states reopen, and we give the virus more fuel, all bets are off. I understand the reasons for reopening the economy, but I’ve said before, if you don’t solve the biology, the economy won’t recover.” – Dr. Erin Bromage, Infectious Disease Expert, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth

A business leader was overheard saying, “I have this office building I’m paying for, and no one is in it. I need to fill it up to make it worth it. We can and must reopen now.” But wait, Facebook and Google just told their thousands of workers they can work from home… forever. They  certainly have lots of buildings that have been paid for. Workers, on the other hand, are afraid  of losing their jobs if they don’t go back to work. They have to calculate whether they want to risk losing their jobs, or risk potentially losing their lives. It’s an unholy choice, the  modern day version of “Your money or your life.” But it’s a calculated risk business leaders and workers alike must make as “re-opening” continues despite the millions of infections worldwide that continue climbing daily.

Much is due to a fundamental lack of leadership. A May 20th research report from Columbia University found that had the U.S. government locked down the country one week earlier, 36,000 people would still be with us today; 80,000 if two weeks earlier. Dr. Ashish Jha, Director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute, on June 8th, called this “blundering” Federal leadership. 

We’ve moved into a “your money or your life” phase in this country. Many business and political leaders are putting people directly in harm’s way by having them come back to work. The virus isn’t gone. In fact, the number of infections are increasing nationally and in those states that have opened up hastily. The Prime Minister of New Zealand has shown amazing leadership around the challenge we face. Jacinda Adern shut down New Zealand at the outset, recognizing that the economy would resume once the virus was gone. She succeeded, and now the  economy is opening back up without putting people’s lives at risk. 

Business leaders face the same fundamental moral choice: Shall I reopen my business and  possibly put my employees at risk? Or should I risk my business and keep them healthy and bring  them back once the coronavirus is crushed? Every business leader must wrestle with the ethics and  morality of this choice. Because the coronavirus is so deadly, it cannot be avoided, denied, or rationalized away. But let’s look at this decision from the vantage point of business logic:

  • Work Gets Done Through People: You need the workforce to be healthy, safe, and trusting you. Without trust and safety, you may as well sell the business.
  • It Only Takes One Infected Worker: One asymptomatic worker can infect many others. Of 61 people in a Washington State choir, 32 came down with coronavirus after rehearsal. If your people get infected and are home sick, what kind of business do you have? And you’ve lost their trust.
  • The Building Has to be Paid For Regardless: With or without your people, the lease or mortgage still has to be paid. 
  • An Infected Workplace Inevitably Shuts Down: Tyson tried to avoid this, yet it didn’t work. Half its workers got infected and they shut down the plant.
  • The Moral Stain of Indifference: You have to live with yourself. Can you live with the risk of infecting your workers and their families? Leaders who demonstrate indifference toward their people’s health have far greater problems than making money.

At the end of the day, all we have is our integrity, our name and reputation. Buildings come and  go. But people’s lives must be cherished. It’s a moral choice. Solve the biology issues first and take care of your people — the economy will follow.

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