In the time of Covid-19 all conventions are challenged. We are struck with the headline in today’s paper, “To Curve the Coronavirus, Hong Kong Tells the World Masks Work.” We’re dazed by this reminder of the overwhelming power of culture in the way people think and behave.

In the US, the Centers for Disease Control scientists told us for months there was no benefit in wearing a facemask to protect ourselves from the deadly Coronavirus. Masks were not tight enough in any case, and they would not prevent tiny droplets from entering around the mask, getting into the face of those wearing them. The science was clear.

But, Chinese and Koreans were wearing masks not to protect themselves; they wore them to protect those around them. Call it collective thinking. This difference in Eastern vs. Western mentalities demonstrates the enormous power of cultural bias and, in this case, the very destructive impact it can have when thought leaders are themselves victims of preconception.

The individualism of Western cultures can be a strength, and the vigor of American and European cultures continues to export products, technologies, and economic benefits to much of the world. People in the West view themselves as independent. We enjoy free choice and the economic incentives for individual ambition are powerful. Max Weber outlined this potent force in his foundational work, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” But what happens when commanding strengths evolve into blindness or even arrogance?

Our CDC is a group of scientists and physicians – professionals who are guided by data, control groups, and scientific method. And still, they let the focus of their study be biased by cultural norms. It was a deadly miss. In this country and parts of Europe, we are sliding toward greater degrees of self-orientation and failing humility. This is not an argument for one culture being better than another.

As students of organization and leadership, we are very interested in the importance of trying to think, to behave, to learn without being overtaken by our cultural legacy. There will be many lessons taken from this dreadful pandemic. Leaders in all of our institutions would do well to pay especially close attention to the unwitting bias of culture.

Kates Kesler, April 8, 2020