In a time as unprecedented as ours, predictions are notoriously unreliable. But when it comes to the current pandemic Bill Gates famously nailed it. Warning something very similar to the current tragedy was coming way back in 2015 from the TED stage.
Bill Gates is incredibly smart of course, but so are lots of other folks who totally didn't see this coming. How did the Microsoft founder turned philanthropist manage such an accurate prediction? As he explained in the release of his annual summer book list this week (read about all his picks here), he didn't have a crystal ball. He had a good book. John M. Barry's The Great Influenza about the deadly 1918-1919 flu pandemic to be precise.
"It's one of several books that made it clear to me that the world needed to do a better job of preparing for novel pathogens," Gates recalls on his blog. "Writing roughly 16 years ago, Barry was clear and persuasive that 'another pandemic not only can happen.... It almost certainly will happen.'"
Barry's book didn't just get Gates worrying about a pandemic, it also taught him essential lessons about how to combat one, lessons both business and political leaders would do well to heed during our current crisis.
1. Leadership matters.
Back in 1918, just as now, the quality of leadership in responding to the new, deadly disease varied greatly. And whether a leader stepped up or not had a huge impact on how deadly the pandemic was in their area.
"In St. Louis, for example, the city mobilized quickly and staged effective responses that saved many lives. In Philadelphia, in contrast, the mayor ignored the advice of experts that he should cancel a massive parade in support of the war effort. A few days later, the bodies started piling up," Gates reports. The lesson: What you do as a leader has huge life and death consequences.
2. Truth matters.
President Obama's number one piece advice for leaders in a crisis is to tell the truth. Gates came to much the same conclusion after reading about the 1918 flu.
"In 1918, America's political leaders--even health commissioners--sugarcoated bad news to avoid panicking the public. That greatly undermined their authority when citizens saw friends and neighbors dying in great numbers," he explains.
Barry writes that "those in authority must retain the public's trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one." Gates apparently agrees.
3. Humility matters.
A pandemic is no time for bravado. Then as now "pandemics are humbling," Gates says. "Despite the brilliant work at the Rockefeller Institute, Johns Hopkins University, and other institutions, doctors never had the benefit of effective antiviral medications or a vaccine. In fact, it was not until 1933 that scientists confirmed that it was a virus, rather than a bacterium, that caused the influenza pandemic."
This uncertainty suggests leaders need to stay flexible in their thinking, agile in their response, and open to viewpoints and expertise different than their own. There is very little chance that plan A or even plan B is going to pan out exactly as you hoped.