September 12, 2020

The Great Influenza by John M. Barry, a long, thorough, and heavy read, delivered powerful lessons in leadership that are as consequential today as they were 100 years ago.

Truth Matters – More Than Anything

Barry delivers the history of how propaganda, denial, and mis-truths shaped the catastrophic collision of World War I and the influenza pandemic of 1918. President Wilson’s lack of transparency created a collective distrust before, during and after the war; at the same time, a foreboding lack of honesty and information led to the mass transmission and inconceivable death rate of a new, aggressive influenza virus.

“The first casualty when war comes is truth.” Barry quoted California Senator, Hiram Johnson, 1917.

There Will Always Be Ripples

All of our actions create ripples – good and bad, a theme our book club dove into with The Cloud Atlas earlier this summer. In The Great Influenza, we learn that had we not been entrenched in WWI, the virus may not have spread to pandemic proportions. And we discover the devastating impact of the pandemic on President Wilson personally, along with consequences from WW1, on the rise of Hitler. Barry writes:

“Historians, with virtual unanimity, agree that the harshness toward Germany of the Paris Peace Treaty helped create the economic hardship, nationalistic reaction, and political chaos that fostered the rise of Adolf Hitler.”

At the same time, we now understand the important function of DNA because of the tremendous work of scientists and doctors in their race to prevent, treat or cure the 1918 influenza virus.

Philanthropy Has an Important Role

But for the gifts of John D. Rockefeller, The Johns Hopkins University, and a handful of dedicated scientists, we would not have what presents as modern medicine. During an era when medical study was non-valued, and medical treatment was often useless if not counter-productive, their gifts of money, equipment, facility and time reformed the system into the advanced study of disease and practice of medicine we have today. And now in 2020, Bill Gates himself (our book club guide) is a champion for vaccines and medical treatments in underdeveloped nations.

Leadership Matters In Crisis

During a pandemic, or a World War, leadership must also be global. World leaders must work together to restore health and/or peace. Leaders must communicate openly and honestly about facts, status, actions and plans – the only way to fold citizens into trust and survival. We learned that lesson the hard way in 1918, and we are witnessing history repeat itself. Abraham Lincoln taught us this early:

“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”