At the beginning of the year I was on holiday in China and chatting with a local. The bushfires were raging in Australia and the locals were all obsessively following what we were doing in response. This man lifted his drink and pointed out to me what he saw as one of the deep differences between China and Australia: that all their leaders were engineers and all ours were lawyers.
Now that point keeps coming back to me as I look at our response to the Corona Virus epidemic.
An engineer would understand the maths. Not necessarily the detail of the maths, but the idea that the maths is not susceptible to argument. If the maths shows you need 30,000 ventilators – well you need to find a way to get 30,000 ventilators. If the maths shows that going into full lock-down will save 10,000 lives, then either go into full lock-down or accept responsibility for those lives.
Unfortunately here in Australia and in the USA and in the UK our leaders’ approach to these problems is to prevaricate, to question the experts delivering the figures, and to find words that let them slide past their leadership obligations.
An engineer knows that decisiveness makes all the difference. If a bridge is going to collapse there’s no waiting around to see what happens next before deciding on a course of action. A lawyer’s instinct is to play for time, to avoid a clear commitment, and to think about responsibility before action.
An engineer knows that clarity is key. Come up with a plan that’s as simple as possible and communicate it clearly. A lawyer is trained to complexity, obfuscation, and a redundancy of detail. You get the idea.
Now I know I’m being simplistic about engineers and lawyers here. The armed forces go through much the same training as engineers and for these purposes might be interchangeable. Politicians and spin-doctors could substitute for lawyers. But the basic principle stands: we don’t need complexity and wordiness; we need to cut through to clarity and solutions.
And sometimes people break out from the mould – for example, Jacinda Ardern has been fabulous in New Zealand with decisive leadership and clear communication leavened with a great deal of human empathy.
Most of our leaders have gone for complexity; for lack of clarity lest they be held to anything; for politics before solutions. The lock-down rules in Australia are unclear and multi-layered. It’s hard to think an engineer wouldn’t have gone down the NZ route and had four simple layers to work through. Our leaders act like lawyers negotiating a contract, with each day seeing yet more twists and addenda making the situation increasingly confusing.
The new employment safety-net is another good example. We could, as a simple example, be using the tax office to hand out payments direct to every individual. Simple, clear, using an existing infrastructure and no middle-person.
Instead we’re going to give money to businesses and then they, assuming they are still in business, will pass it on to their employees. What about when the business fails? What if the owner forgets? What if the owner comes down with corona virus? What about self-funded retirees? What about… It’s complex and is inevitably going to create a summer-storm of rules. And as any engineer knows complex systems are the ones most likely to fail.
What we need now is simplicity and clarity. We need to know where we stand and we need solutions that are focused on really delivering rather than giving the appearance of activity.
Clearly we’re not going to get any new leaders for the foreseeable future. And even if we did, the pool of potential candidates doesn’t look much different from those already warming seats. So all we can really hope for is that our leaders will throw aside the habits of their working lifetimes and channel an inner engineer instead of an inner lawyer.
A surgeon, an engineer, and a lawyer were arguing about which profession was the oldest, and the doctor said, “Well, on the fifth day of Creation, God took a rib from Adam, so surgery is the oldest profession.” The engineer said, “But, before that, God created the heavens and earth from chaos, so engineering is the oldest profession.” And the lawyer said, “Yes, but who created the chaos?”