Making It Up: What MH370 and Religion Can Teach
Us About Leadership

By

Leonard Zwelling

         I
believe (please note choice of verb) that the evidence is incontrovertible that
the need for religion is hard wired into the human psyche. As much as eating, breathing
and sex, somewhere within our DNA we have a desire for religion, which I will
define as faith in some form of system of order. In the end, the key aspect of
religious belief is that, unlike scientific opinion, religious belief need not
be based on demonstrable or historical fact. Why do I believe this and, if I am
correct, why should that be part of being human?

         I
believe it because sentient humans crave order in their perceptible universe
and require explanations for the seemingly inexplicable. The Greeks and the
Romans outlined the precise underpinnings of religion by having a host of gods
each responsible for explaining some natural phenomenon. The Iliad and the
Odyssey clarified who is in charge of what within the context of a story, but
to some extent, so do the Creation story, the Great Flood story (not just a
Judeo-Christian legend) and the tale of the Tower of Babel, etc.

The fact of the
matter is that my entire religious culture, Judaism, is built on a myth with no
historical evidence supporting it (that’s why I call it a myth). The events of
the Exodus may never have occurred as far as I am aware. The escape from Egypt
of the enslaved Jewish people after God slays the first born of the Egyptians, the
wandering of the escapees in the desert, the parting of the Red Sea, the
acquisition of God’s word on Mt. Sinai and the right of the Jewish people to
the land known as Israel is all built on a story with no archeological support.
As my buddy Marty Raber likes to say: “It’s a metaphor”.

         Myth
or metaphor, religion, even Christianity and the most powerful religious story
of all, the Passion and the Resurrection, have minimal, if any, historical or
scientific facts to support their basis. And, in the end, it doesn’t really
matter. People believe it. That’s all that matters.

         As
was said at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend
becomes fact, print the legend.”

         (If
the past few paragraphs were offensive to you, I apologize. In no way do I
minimize the impact of religion as a force for good in people’s lives. I just
see no reason that religion needs to be based on historical fact to be that
force for good and is just as likely to have been derived from another source
of equal or greater power than history like divine inspiration).

         For
the past two weeks, we have been treated to news reports with no news in them.
A large airplane left the ground on March 8 in Malaysia and within an hour or
so its communications equipment was disabled, seemingly on purpose by the hand
of humans and the plane’s computers were reprogrammed to fly, not to China, the
planned destination, but to…..? No one really knows and the plane, all of its
200-foot wing span and 239 occupants, cannot be found.

         To
fill up the time when the world is curious but that curiosity is not matched by
any new factual information, a host of experts (let’s call them commercial aviation rabbis [CARs]for now) are waxing poetic about what might have happened on the plane. But the
facts are that we and the CARs don’t know where the plane is, we don’t why it is where it is
and thus, we turn to experts to make up stories to explain the inexplicable.
Hmmm…sounds like religion to me.

The Sidney Lumet
film Network taught us that television may be the new religion and computers
and Edward Snowden demonstrated how the internet may be the world’s network TV
if cat videos on Youtube had not already done that. It should come as no
surprise that this new electronic font of wisdom will be the source of the new
stories that comfort us by assuring us that there’s a reason for everything. In
fact, there may be no reason and even if there is, there is no reason to expect
that we will know why MH 370 vanished, now or ever.

         What
this has taught me is that in the absence of facts and information (and maybe even
when that information is available, like President Obama’s birth certificate),
people will make up a story.

         So,
as leaders, it is imperative that we follow the advice given to me very early in my
public relations career at MD Anderson by then VP of PR, Steve Stuyck. When I
was dealing with my first crisis as an Associate VP he taught me: if the story
is bad, “get it out, get it all out, and get it out as fast as possible,
preferably on day one.” If you don’t, people will start to make it up and what
they make up is likely to be far worse than the truth. (Of course, in some
cases the truth is far worse than the legend. Do you think a benevolent God
would slay all those Egyptians in the Red Sea and then allow the slaughter of 6
million of the descendants of the very people He saved only to die at the hands
of the Nazis? Perhaps this God is the God of the Book of Ecclesiastes not the
Book of Exodus. His work is not necessarily for us to understand).

         As
leaders our tendency when dealing with controversial, politically sensitive or
potentially embarrassing situations (to our institutions or ourselves) is to
cover up the truth. I believe this is precisely the wrong thing to do and if
you doubt that ask Richard Nixon (Watergate), Ronald Reagan (Iran-Contra) or
Bill Clinton (Monica).

         It
would seem that this is never done right and no one ever learns. But that is
not true either.

         When
my personal hero David Letterman was caught having had intimate relations with female
(presumably young) members of his staff and was being blackmailed, he immediately
went to the police and took to the airwaves. He admitted his errors (this was
prior to his marriage) on his show in a never-to-be-forgotten monologue and
owned up to and apologized for his foolish behavior. The story and the
controversy vanished in a few short news cycles. All Dave had to say were the
three phrases that seem to be genetically unlinked from the Y chromosome: “I’m
lost; I’m wrong and I’m sorry.” He said it and it was all over.

         Why
does a late night comedian do it right and Presidents so wrong? I don’t know.
What I do know is that mysteries can fall into two categories. There are those
that mystify and that are eventually solved (like the fact that the Earth
travels around the Sun and not the other way around) and those that are not
likely to be solved (why Christianity and Judaism are the way they are and have
such power when so many false Messiahs were unable to create their own
followings of historical note, e.g., the Reverend Jim Jones whose only lasting
gift to us is the term “drinking the Kool-Aid”).

         With
religion, I choose to believe that proof of God’s existence and the veracity of
the stories of my chosen faith, Judaism, are of no consequence to my sense of
wonder in the natural world and the very tiny role I have in it. I have had two
kids. I have done the major work Nature put me on Earth to do. The rest is
gravy and I appreciate and give thanks for it although I am not sure to whom.
God for me and God for you, if you choose to believe as I do, need not be the
same to satisfy that deep human need for religion.

         I
choose to believe and I choose to formulate what that belief looks like. While
it may never have been a real choice if it was hard-wired into my genetic code,
its contours have changed greatly over the years. But, with every iteration,
that belief comes from me. I am making it up. I make up its shape and tenets. I
do the rituals that seem right at the time, but may not be later. (I am glad I
was Bar Mitzvah’d at 13.  I am not sure I
could do it now and I am quite sure I was better off with my bris being on day
8). My faith, like everyone’s, comes from within and not from the quantifiable
environment or the laws of physics. It may be in my DNA, but does that make it
less credible? No. More so, for it may well be part of who I am as created by
my parents, my experience and…..other forces.

         I
believe that MH370 will be found but it could be 20 years before the black
boxes are located and deciphered. Given the likely fate of those on the plane,
other than the natural human longing for closure, is this really a news story of
any greater importance than would be the loss of the same number of people to a
cyclone off the coast of Bangladesh? Not really, just scarier as an airplane is
within our experience and a cyclone isn’t.

         But
as someone trying to lead in a complex world filled with the possibility of a
viral video embarrassing me in a second, I will be mindful that even that video
is better than having the people I lead make up what really is happening or
what I do or my motivations for actions that affect their lives, especially as
they involve me as a leader.

         Unlike
the plane or the existence of God, transparency to those I serve as a leader is
something I can do something about. Honesty is still the best policy unless
your daily leadership chores involve national security and even then I am not
sure that the American people cannot handle the truth or that our enemies are
so facile as to use it against us.

         Anybody
listening?

            

Leonard Zwelling