Fear: Trumping Stupidity As The Most Powerful Force In The Universe

By

Leonard Zwelling

According to the Internet, Roland Barthes first said “stupidity is the most powerful force in the universe.” I must admit I had come to believe this to be the case as so much of what moves populations and the fate of millions can be explained by the irrational thought of other human beings.

But in watching how large organizations work in 2019, I am becoming more convinced that fear is even more powerful. It seems to pervade all aspects of life in these corporations, universities and government. There is always the fear of losing one’s job for an innocent mistake. There’s the fear of losing face and public shaming should the spotlight of poor judgment fall upon you. There’s loss of money and stature. And this is all caused by fear. Fear of making an error. Fear of not being perfect. Fear of standing out.

We marvel at the entrepreneur or athlete who will risk it all for a chance to win—financially or competitively. They are heroes for their deeds and how they accomplished their heroics in the face of the potential of public ridicule. They overcame fear and triumphed. There’s never enough of that to go around.

For most people working in large organizations they want the paycheck without hassle and do not wish to get too involved in politics or risk anything. “They play it the company way” as the song from How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying states. Playing it safe is giving in to fear.

In the federal government today, President Trump rules by fear. Everyone is afraid of his Twitter fingers. He can swing public opinion in 280 characters and has millions of followers. Even members of his own party in Congress will not stand up to Mr. Trump even when his policies are dreadful such as his tax cuts or his oversight of immigration at our southern border. People, some very powerful ones, are afraid to do their best work for fear of disagreeing with or offending Mr. Trump and being fired after being ridiculed on Fox And Friends.

For many years now, I have felt that MD Anderson is ruled by fear.

First, far too much power is centered in the president. He answers to no one on day to day matters and on bigger issues his bosses are people who do not understand what MD Anderson does and are satisfied all is well if Anderson is handled with kid gloves in the media (guaranteed by the full page ads in the Chronicle) and the money keeps rolling in.

Second, there have been so many truly great people fired over the years at Anderson for no reason other than crossing swords with the president that no one dares object meaningfully to what the president decides.

On more than one occasion, I have advised those upon whose heads the system was coming down to get new jobs and not fight the forces of Pickens. You cannot beat the University of Texas System and when you fight with the president, that’s who you’re up against.

Third, there is no reason that the faculty should have tolerated the expulsion of Chinese members without detailed information as to why this occurred. Why are the faculty allowing the leadership to get away with this? Answer: fear. Fear of reprisal. Fear of job loss. Fear of wealth loss. Fear of stature loss.

Finally, the leadership is brushing aside foul-ups in clinical care that must originate in problems in the clinical lab and in nursing. No one is being held accountable, at least not publicly. Instead, the entire faculty, nursing staff and hospital is being tarred with the same brush simply because now it is the leadership in fear of being found out to not have listened to complaints coming in from the faculty about the state of clinical care in some units of the hospital for years. There is a definite attempt to sweep under the rug the identities of those charged with assuring clinical care is safe and who failed. Fear is not fine, but there are firable offenses and attention must be paid.

It is time to shift the fear. The Board of Regents needs to appoint on MD Anderson oversight board consisting of distinguished local Houston leaders to whom the president must answer. It’s time to unshackle the faculty, Chinese and otherwise, to do their best work free from fear of repercussions and have the leadership really answer to someone. It won’t be via shared governance. It will be when the president of MD Anderson gets a real boss to whom he (or she, someday) must answer. Then, and only then will stupidity regain its rightful place as the world’s most powerful force.

Leonard Zwelling