Our “Independent Spirit” is Killing Us

The COVID-19 Leadership Challenge: Leading Ourselves … for Others

I am a proud but dismayed American. I’m afraid our “Independent Spirit” is killing us. Why? The resistance to wearing face masks as a mark of “independence.” And, until we get a COVID-19 vaccine, the independence mindset of many Americans will likely result in thousands of additional deaths due to virus transmission.

So, here’s the COVID-19 leadership challenge: How will you lead you during the pandemic?
We Americans are fiercely proud of our independence and our ability to pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Yet, the line between independence (a good thing) and selfishness (a bad thing) is mighty thin.

The definitions found in the dictionary offer little help:

  • Independent: not influenced or controlled by others in matters of opinion, conduct, etc.; thinking or acting for oneself: An independent thinker.
  • Selfish: devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one’s own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others.

These definitions lead to even more questions:

  • What’s the difference between independent and selfish?
  • Where do behaviors associated with both start to blur and overlap?
  • Where do the positive behaviors of independence devolve into the negative behaviors associated with selfishness?

Here’s my observation of independence devolving into selfishness:
Not wearing facemasks during the COVID-19 pandemic
Fact: Transmission rates of the virus in Japan are many multiples less transmission rates in the U.S. In the last seven days, (August 3-10), Japan has had 7 cases per 100,000. The United States has had 115 cases per 100,000.

At this point, I’ve already upset some of you. Perhaps you’ll choose to stop reading this blog. Or, you’ll continue reading and then excoriate me on social media.

So be it.

I’m not perfect, no one is. Yes, I’ve been selfish. We all have. Yes, I have an independent streak. We all do. The question remains: how will you lead you during this pandemic so we all benefit?

My personal leadership credo is heavily influenced by a country that puts tremendous value on being other-centered, NOT self-centered. That country is Japan.
I’ve studied Japanese, and lived in and out of Japan for close to 50 years. I distinctly remember arriving in Tokyo for the first time, decades ago. One of the lasting memories remains the number of people I saw wearing white cotton face masks. My thoughts ranged from “were they avoiding air pollution?” to “Were they afraid of getting sick?”

Having undoubtedly fielded this question before, my Japanese friend laughed and replied: “Those wearing masks might not feel well. They are wearing masks so they don’t get others sick. This behavior exemplifies the other-centered nature of our culture. I take care of you, and you take care of me.”

While viewing a recent BBC newscast, I was not surprised to see a video of a hugely crowded train station in Tokyo. As thousands of commuters streamed past and around the reporter, he expressed amazement while describing the scene: “Of the hundreds of thousands of passengers surging through this station, everyone is wearing facemasks!”
Didn’t surprise me in the least. The Japanese are other-centered. They take care of each other.

By now, I’ve angered even more readers. Sadly, some of you might even express a sad level of banality with the challenge: “Then go back to Japan!”.

I believe that numbers are numbers and science is science. I also believe in common sense: masks reduce the amount of spit (read, virus droplets) we expel into the air!
Now, back to Japan. There, you won’t hear the same lame excuses you hear in the U.S. for not wearing masks:
“I’m eating,”
“I’m drinking,”
“I have a condition that doesn’t allow me to wear a mask,”
Blah, blah, blah,

My wife and I recently returned from a camping trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Admittedly, not a great time to visit if one wants to avoid crowds. That said, we wore our facemasks while on hiking trails and everywhere else required.

Yet, easily 70% of those we passed on the various trails weren’t wearing masks. And, the patterns were all over the map; at times the parents were, but their kids weren’t. At times, the kids were wearing masks, but their parents weren’t. Older, younger … didn’t matter.
And, given the restrictions on international travel, I’m confident stating the vast majority of these visitors were my fellow Americans.

Given the crowds, maintaining the 6-foot social distancing rule wasn’t possible. Understandably, people jammed into the most popular lookouts to soak up the magnificent beauty of each park. That left mask-wearing as the only choice to keep each other safe …

Avoiding the maskless masses, my wife and I found—and loved—hiking “off-grid.” Thanks to advice gleaned from Park Rangers, friends, and trail maps, we discovered geyser fields and tremendous vistas … and we had them to ourselves!

Until we achieve herd immunity via whichever vaccine(s) evolve, we must care for one another. Wearing a mask isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength, other-centeredness, and frankly giving a hoot about humanity.

I’m troubled knowing I can’t rely upon my fellow Americans to look out for me. Guess I’ll remain the independent (and, sometimes selfish) soul I am and take care of myself … while wearing my mask.

How will you lead you … for others?