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The Email that Changed the World

Leaders make decisions every day. All day. Some are big. Some are negligible. But all serve to expose and reinforce the core values that have been honed over time.

Every once in a while, one of those little decisions turns out to have massive repercussions—sometimes good, sometimes bad.

On January 10th last year, two men made a decision to do something courageous, generous, and without any fanfare. In fact, I would argue they might deserve the Nobel prize. My hunch is that for them, it simply seemed like the right thing to do. Like a no-brainer.

I read their story** on BBC News in an article talking about the miraculous speed at which vaccines for Covid-19 were developed. The essential facts go like this.

Two scientists began collaborating on research years ago. One, Eddie Holmes, a professor at the University of Sydney. The other Yong-Zhen Zhang, from the Chinese Center for Disease Control in Beijing.

When the outbreak began in Wuhan, Professor Zhang collected samples from some of the earliest patients. After examining the genetic code, he saw that this was a coronavirus, and thought initially it was “Sars coming back again,” the respiratory disease that caused a deadly outbreak in Asia in 2002. However, this code was different. So, Zhang mapped the genome of the virus and, in early January, sent his research to his friend in Sydney for review.

The two colleagues went to work and began to write up their findings. Meanwhile, the first waves of public speculation about this virus in Wuhan started to grow.

On January 10th, Prof. Holmes got up early, he couldn't sleep. “[The potential significance of our discovery] was weighing heavily on my conscience." So, he called his colleague in China to ask permission to publish the genome sequence. Zhang was aboard a plane when he answered the phone call and wanted time to think about it. He knew there was pressure to not release too much information about the outbreak. Prof. Zhang promised he would call Holmes back soon.

“One minute later, Zhang called back to say, “Let’s do it.”

Merely 52 minutes after Zhang's green light, Prof Holmes had drafted a short explanation and posted the entire genome of the virus for anyone and everyone to see. He specifically wrote, “feel free to download, share, use, and analyze this data. In less than a week, a company called Moderna began research to find a vaccine.

Boom. The snowball of global research started to roll.

Yes, others beside Holmes and Zhang might have done the same thing had they been the first to make this discovery. But the point is that these two scientists did it. They gave away the research that jumpstarted what might be the fastest vaccination development in history. Today, barely 12 months later, vaccinations are in large scale production and delivery. Two men chose to forgo any proprietary or monetary benefits of their discovery and in the process made it possible for vaccinations that might halt the relentless march of this pandemic.

I am so impressed by their example. I plan to send this post to them as a thank you.

But, let’s talk about larger leadership lessons embedded in their example.

Everyday, you and I make decisions that reflect and reinforce our values. This ongoing process fine tunes what becomes our way of life. That is, by deliberately acting on the values we hold most highly, we turn those values into natural reflexes.

Allow me to impose my hunches about the selfless decision of these two scientists. When I consider the other routes they could have taken upon this discovery, I see the evidence of multiple well-honed values at play. For example:

  • They chose to be generous rather than greedy. That is, they did nothing to capitalize on their insight. They didn’t monetize it nor take any action that could be construed as grandstanding for the sake of their own reputation. They just gave it all away.

  • They chose to act with courage rather than cowardice. I have never lived in China, but it sounds like there was a great deal of pressure to hold details about this virus close to the vest. I would imagine that choosing to publish their findings was a truly courageous decision.

  • They chose collaboration over competition. The decision of this moment was made possible by the heavy lifting of the collaborative partnership they’d practiced for years. They resisted the posture of competition and unleashed a global partnership through their action.

Let’s get personal, shall we?

What are the values you want to define your legacy? What are the factors that shape your decisions, your priorities, your relationships, and more? (I have to admit, it's hard to pose this question and not digress into what we are witnessing in the US Presidential transition.)

What kind of person do you want to be known for? If people only knew you through the decisions you make, would their observations line up with what you hope to be known for?

FYI: Many of us have aspirational values that haven’t quite made it into our daily normal. The way that changes is through intentional behavior that puts those aspirational values into action on purpose, whether we “feel it” or not. Over time, that intentional behavior become our new normal.

Put yourself in their shoes. If you had discovered a scientific breakthrough needed by the entire world, what do you think you would have done?


(**This is based on the article: “Coronavirus: Virus provides leaps in scientific understanding." By, Victoria Gill, science correspondent for BBC. I hope I got enough of the details right to do justice by the author’s research.)


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