How Reason Died for Want of Leadership: How Leadership died for Want of Reason

Syracuse University’s Dean Lorraine Branham ‘disinvited’ three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Michel du Cille from a conference because he had recently returned from Liberia.

Makes sense, you say? Please listen to the details: Mr. du Cille had been back in the US for 21 days when the invite was rescinded. He’d been self-monitoring diligently since his return and had no symptoms of any kind. Ms. Branham admits that there was no factual reason to exclude him beyond the irrational fears of a few students.  Instead of showing the reason expected of good leadership, she caved to hysteria. “I was unwilling to take any risk where our students are concerned.”

But here’s the rub: there was no risks to take. This cannot be about risk-assessment or management, because there were none. This is about a dean in a position of leadership who would not lead.

Actually, leadership is about rational risk-assessment and risk-taking versus uninformed decision-making when important principles are at stake. In this case, there was no risk to students. There was only a risk of being spuriously accused, by ignorant, uninformed people, that she was taking a risk.

Syracuse University, and Ms. Branham in particular, failed the students, the university and their peers. As an academic, she failed her duty to put reason over ignorance, knowledge over fear, logic over prejudice  – the very core principle on which every University is built.

Michel du Cille’s response was pointed and appropriate:

The most disappointing part of this bad decision is the disservice to the fine journalism students at Syracuse’s Newhouse School. What a missed opportunity to teach future media professionals how to seek out accurate hard facts; backed up with full details about the Ebola crisis. I guess it is easier to pull the hysteria and xenophobia cards.

In short, her actions were a validation of irrational response to an important issue. But I’m sure she’ll keep her job. That’s not a cynical statement. That’s a fact.

The Ebola issue has brought incredible examples in leadership failure from all quarters. One of the most staggering examples of this is eloquently displayed in the cspan video record of the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing last week on the US Ebola Response. It exposes members on both sides of the aisle (although in fairness, the Republicans come off far worse) simply reiterating their entrenched (and often wildly unfounded) positions instead of listening, considering and processing the information they have elicited from their witnesses – Rep. Steve Scalise’s five minutes is a staggering example of this.  These are supposedly people with degrees, with experience and expertise in governance. These are people who, supposedly, requisition and rely on accurate information from experts in their field in order to make good decisions on behalf of the people they represent. It is very clear, from the video, that more than half of them simply don’t.

Here’s a wonderful example of someone who has no business managing a stationery cupboard, much less the affairs of government of a state:

And to be fair, it wasn’t as if the expert witnesses came off very well either. They did not have clear answers to some legitimate questions. They weren’t in possession of facts they should have at their fingertips. And, worst of all, when it came areas where it was impossible to possess 100% factual data, they were not eloquent or forthcoming or firm enough to clearly state that there were certain things that, at present, were unknowable.

The debate over whether the US should close its borders to flights originating in the stricken regions of West Africa will, I predict, end in Obama instituting a flight ban, despite the unanimous advice of experts in both epidemiology and border controls. There are, at present NO direct flights from the US to Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea. But there are standardized transit routes. Apparently, a huge proportion of the US public is so ignorant of how international travel takes place these days, that no amount of rational explanation will satisfy them. They seem incapable of conceiving of how having an accurate record of travelers’ port of origination IS safer than forcing people to take circuitous routes that allow them, far more easily, to obscure where their journey began. They seem unable, even now, to take on board the fact that the First World’s choice not to engage with this problem early has turned a local problem into a global one or that making it difficult for volunteer professionals to go to and return from stricken areas could lead, ultimately, to a global pandemic.

I have noticed that precious few journalists have managed to represent the expert argument against a travel ban with any clarity or accuracy. And their editors in chief have not demanded it of them. Again, a terrible failure of leadership on behalf of many media institutions.

But for some, this is a moot point. Since it is clear that much of the US public knows so little about how interconnected the world is that they would simply prefer to close their borders to everyone (including US passport holders). It doesn’t occur to them that it would cause world trade and business to grind to a halt and precipitate a global economic crisis. Americans have been allowed, by their leaders, by their media outlets, and by their own insecurities, to lack understanding of the way the world really works. Partially, I believe this has come about by a culture of consumerism designed to feed people only what they are comfortable with. It has been exacerbated by certain political factions with a rallying cry of impossible isolationism disguised as patriotism.

But I also lay the blame at the door of thousands of educational institutions that have betrayed their pledge to students by making them ‘work ready’ instead of ‘world ready’ and parents who believe their children could successfully be one without the other. Going back to my exemplar at the beginning, I give you Dean Branham.

Finally, it is not just the US who has failed by any means. Both the government and the Press in the UK have, for the most part, failed to take strong leadership positions. The WHO, which is tasked specifically with aggregating and distributing information on infectious disease problems, had appointed incompetent people in West Africa and, when other organizations alerted them to their lack of accurate information, the upper management at the WHO did not act immediately to correct the problems.

It’s no wonder people are so cynical about their leaders. They have a right to be. Right and left, we are watching people in positions of leadership make decisions based on everything other than fact. They act based on appearances, on public opinion polls, on perceptions of their own exposure to liability. They are acting on everything but clear-sighted, reason-based, accurate information.

I doubt that the West will see significant outbreaks of Ebola. But if there is any silver lining to this awful disaster that has claimed the lives of approximately 7,000 people, it will be the concrete realization that we have very few good people in leadership positions.  That we have allowed ourselves to be smugly cynical as a mode of self-protection from depressing realities. But this crisis has shown us that our cynicism can be deadly.

We pay our taxes, we elect our leaders, we commercially support corporations, we invest our savings. And for this, we have a right and a duty to demand exceptional leaders who act in our long-term interests, not in the service of their own hold on power, or in pandering to our fleeting, immediate notions of comfort.