In my early teens an Air Force doctor rented a house a few doors down from us. When he found out I wanted to be a doctor he took me to the base where he and a medical colleague were experimenting with a new method of open heart surgery. To practice it they first created congenital heart defects in dogs and after the dogs healed, went back in and practiced their “repair” procedure.
After they completed surgery on one of the dogs I watched as a medical assistant moved the unconscious animal onto blankets just outside the OR. We took a break and when we returned I was struck by the fact that as the dog regained consciousness she didn’t cry or moan. Imagine that! She gingerly lifted her head, then slowly sat up and though unstable, stood, leaning slightly against the wall.
Eventually she took a few steps and after an hour or so was alert but cautious in movement…but still no cries or moans. Could it be that some pain has to be taught? Fast forward 15 years and one of our small children reached up and touched the stove frame. It was hot to the touch because the oven was on but not enough to burn. What followed was a surprise “ouch” and then an admonition to us the parents, “you should have warned me!”
Most pandemics that have happened in our lifetime took place off shore or were “nominal” if they made it to our mainland at all; there was little or no pain. Not this time! Those trained in the science of such threats and those responsible for managing them warned us of COVID-19; they championed action knowing full well that not doing so would be catastrophic. Despite those warnings, some leaders, enterprise, institutional and political, large and small, watched like spectators while the virus gripped Wuhan Province, Italy, Spain, all of Europe and ultimately the U.S.
Other leaders heard the warnings and, while they found them credible, did nothing, thinking they would be unaffected. Because they weren’t mandated, masks, gloves and distancing were viewed as optional or not required at all. Many of those have since learned the pain that comes from being behind the curve. Fortunately, others heeded the call to action and did what they could to prepare for one of the greatest challenges they would ever face. Even then, while they did everything they could to prepare, some were shuttered by community-wide policies.
Lesson learned—those who never experienced the pain of a pandemic and ignored the warnings are now suffering the consequences. And when those warnings fell on deaf ears, so many others, well-intended, became victims of inaction. As to those who had suffered through similar crises or willingly opened their minds to the cautions of those who had, most persevered.
Executives learn from their mistakes and of course their failures, forever remembering the pain that often accompanies both. There are times however when wanting “proof of pain” is not in the best interest of the enterprise they lead, nor its customers or its employees. This is one of those times.
Ignoring severe warnings when only we as individuals are at risk is a personal decision. When doing so puts others in harm’s way, it is both irresponsible and unacceptable.
We now become those who will warn the next generation of leadership and must hope that when that time comes, more will listen; we now have proof of pain.