Jun 21 2016

Change is Great…. if Leaders GO First!


As leaders, we hold the key to successful change

in the palm of our hand…

especially if we happen to be holding a mirror.


LEADING CHANGE:  Over 150 years apart, two stories remind us of leadership’s unique role in making changes.


Center for Disease Control (CDC) article noted in the United States, hospital patients’ contract nearly 2 million infections each year. “On average, healthcare providers clean their hands less than half of the times they should. On any given day, about one in 25 hospital patients has at least one healthcare-associated infection.”  What high-tech, high-effort solution did the CDC recommend for the medical industry? Wash Your Hands!

How can we change and maintain the behavior? The medical hand washing mandate of 1846 is recounted in the book Leadership and Self-Deception, the challenge of getting people to change continues today.


In the mid 1800’s, a young doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis, earns a position at the Vienna General, an important research hospital.

When assigned to one of the two maternity wards, Semmelweis became very alarmed by the high mortality rate of maternity patients. More troubling was that his ward’s mortality rate was even more dreadful than the other ward’s. The situation was so grave, the doctor reported pregnant women “kneeling and wringing their hands,” begging to be moved to the less risky ward.


Even more troubling, was the decline in mortality rates in his own ward when Semmelweis was gone for several weeks. Sammelwies was quit disturbed after returning from leave to discover mortality rates at his own ward had declined in his absence. Obsessed with isolating the problem, Semmelweis began to standardize practices within the wards. Birthing procedures, diet, ventilation and even laundry processing, were standardized, with no improvement in mortality rates.

Eventually, Semmelwies’ professor, received a minor cut while performing an autopsy on a woman who died of childbed fever. Soon, the male professor experienced symptoms of childbed fever and died. Through this event, Semmelwies realized the difference between the two wards. His ward was attended by doctors who also performed autopsies. The less risky ward was attended by midwives, who did not perform autopsies.


Semmelweis theorized “particles” from autopsies and diseased patients were being transferred from patient to patient by the hands of the doctors. He immediately instituted a policy in his ward requiring physicians to wash their hands.

Even though the mortality rate decreased dramatically and immediately, Semmelwies’ change met with strong resistance from other physicians. It was difficult, maybe even impossible, for the doctors to perceive they were the root cause of the high mortality rate. (Keep in mind, these doctors had advanced professionally in a culture where blood on their gowns was a status symbol–the more bloodstains, the more surgical experience and expertise.)


We hold the key to successful change in the palm of our hands…especially if we happen to be holding a mirror.

The author of Leadership and Self-Deception identifies three characteristics of effective organizations and their leadership.

1) Focus on Results
Focus on the results you want to achieve. Free everyone to do what’s right, even if it means changing what’s been done before. Even if you, as the leader, change what you’ve always done.
2) Learn—Teach—Learn
Actively seek information, insight, and differing points of view to help you achieve desired results. Learn. Share what you’ve learned. Learn some more.
3) Come Clean
Model “coming clean.” When leaders make mistakes, they acknowledge them and don’t shift responsibility. They learn and move on (and, by the way, have much more fun because being authentic and human is much more energizing than desperately defending and pretending!)


Ignaz Semmelweis could never have made his important, life-saving discovery unless he was willing to accept that his own behavior might be the root cause of the problem. Overcoming self-deception is the first and, often most difficult, step toward improved results. Ergo: ego has got to go!


Interested in reading more about change? The following books may interest you:

Leadership and Self-Deception, Arbinger Institute
John P. Kotter, Leading Change
Jeffrey Hiatt, Change Management: The People Side of Change

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