A Fierce Old Story: Fighting a Plague with Common Decency
by David Hurst

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3d Waage entscheidung zwischen Liebe und Vernunft

David Hurst : Are analogies a faster solution than data based decision models?

The rats gave the first clue: they staggered onto the streets, emitted a drop of blood from their noses and died in droves. As their bodies piled up, newspapers agitated, and citizens complained – why was the sanitation department not removing them? The rodents were collected and cremated and the citizens returned to their preoccupation with working hard and getting rich.

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Too little, too late

Only a local doctor and his colleague recognized the pattern – a plague was beginning to sweep through the population. They tried to alert the authorities, but the government was reluctant to sound the alarm. Some action was taken, but the language was optimistic and politicians downplayed the seriousness of the problem. It took a jump in the death toll before serious measures were taken: the town was sealed, and a plague officially declared. The pestilence went on to ravage the city, as usual affecting the poor the most.

From allegory to analogy

 You may recognize this story outline from Albert Camus’ The Plague (1947). Anyone who has read his newly popular allegorical novel would know what to expect during a pandemic.   At the onset of the current coronavirus pandemic, when there was little data, experts conducted what can be thought of as an analogical inquiry, using the liberal arts.

They consulted historians who had studied the flu pandemic of 1918 and other plagues from the past. They looked for comparable coronaviruses, like SARS and MERS. They began to compare experiences in different countries with similar circumstances. They searched for metaphors and analogies, even fiction like The Plague for ideas that might be relevant.

Action before data

Like so many entrepreneurs, it seems clear that those countries whose leaders took early decisions to quarantine their societies, based on wise judgement, had much better experiences. They were willing to commit to action, rather than wait for the inevitable delay for data and calculation. Only once data was available could they claim to be ‘guided by science’ and ‘evidence-based’. But because of the exponential growth of the virus, a few days delay could make a huge difference.

What really matters

“There are only two or three human stories,” wrote Willa Cather, “and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” We are living through just such a story right now.

The universe may be made of matter, but we humans live in a world of value and significance, of ‘what matters’. Science deals with fact, narrative deals with truth. As screenwriter, Robert McKee explains, “What happens is fact, not truth. Truth is what we think about what happens.”

Leadership requires empathy and decency

This is the power of analogical inquiry. The liberal arts help us learn from the experiences of others, to feel what they felt and to think what they thought. We call the quality ‘empathy’, the essence of what it means to be alive and the critical ingredient of effective leadership – a preoccupation with “what matters”.

This is Camus’ message: the “plague”, ill-fortune and injustice in its many forms, comes and goes but never completely disappears. It is the underlying human condition, to which our response must always be one of caring – ‘common decency’ “There is no question of heroism in all this,” says Dr. Rieux, Camus’ narrator, “It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea that makes people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is – common decency.”

About the Author:
David Hurst is a speaker, writer and management educator (www.davidkhurst.com). His most recent book is The New Ecology of Leadership: Business Mastery in a Chaotic World (Columbia University Press 2012)

This article is one in the Drucker Forum “shape the debate” series relating to the 12th Global Peter Drucker Forum, under the theme “Leadership Everywhere” taking place on October 29 & 30, 2020 in Vienna, Austria.
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