Collaborative Leadership Blog

It Only Takes One

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[1]

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 job, or take the risk and potentially lose their lives. It’s an unholy choice, the modern day version of “Your money or your life.” But it’s a calculus business leaders and workers alike must make as “re-opening” continues in spite of the fact that North Carolina is experiencing a spike in Covid-19 cases several weeks after Memorial Day, and there are now over 3.1 million Americans are now infected, and climbing daily, and as of this writing, over 131,000 have passed away—also climbing. Infections are estimated at 100,000/day.

All due to a fundamental lack of leadership. A May 20th research report from Columbia University found that had the President locked down the country one week earlier, 36,000 people would still be with us today; 80,000 or more if 2 weeks earlier. Dr. Ashish Jha, Director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute, June 8, 2020 called this “blundering” Federal leadership.

Business leaders need not make the same mistake. There is a fundamental moral choice to be made here: Shall I reopen my business and possibly put my people at risk? Or should I keep them healthy and possibly risk my business? Every business leader must wrestle with the morality of this choice. Because Covid is so deadly, the choice 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 might as well sell the business
  • It Only Takes One Infected Worker: 1 asymptomatic worker can infect many others. Of 61 people in a Washington State choir, 32 came down with Covid 19 after rehearsal. If your people get infected and are home sick, what kind of business do you have? And you have lost their trust.
  • An Infected Workplace Inevitably Shuts Down: Tyson tried to avoid this and 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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Dr. Edward Marshall is a former business owner for 4 decades, and now an Adjunct Professor who teaches leadership at Duke University; ICF certified executive coach, Lifetime Top 15 Trust Thought Leader, author of the forthcoming book: Leadership’s 4th Evolution: Collaboration for the 21st Century, September, 2020. https://titles.cognella.com/leadership-s-4th-evolution-9781516598465 or Contact: edward.marshall@duke.edu


[1] https://www.erinbromage.com/post/the-risks-know-them-avoid-them