Leadership & Self-Deception

The Arbinger Institute’s classic book, “Leadership & Self-Deception – Getting Out of the Box”, is one of the most powerful leadership books that has ever been written. The authors describe how being absorbed in our own thoughts, feelings and emotions and ignoring others’ humanity and perspectives is a sure recipe for disaster in organizations. Ignoring our natural instinct to be of service to others and to be ‘stuck’ in our own experiences puts us in “boxes” that inflate others’ faults, our own virtue and our own sense of self-importance. We start to blame situations on everybody but ourselves and, unfortunately, this pattern continues over time. Such self-absorbed behavior is toxic and forces others into their own internal boxes. Like a disease spreading out of control, the results are dysfunctional cultures characterized by highly disengaged and unmotivated employees.

In the book, the Arbinger Institute authors tell a story that serves as a fascinating metaphor related to being in the box. Reference is made to a Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, a European obstetrician who worked at the Vienna General Hospital in the mid-1800s. The mortality rate among women in the section of the maternity ward where Semmelweis practiced was 1 in 10. The symptoms associated with these deaths became known as ‘childbed fever’ and, unfortunately, no treatments were effective.

A second section of the maternity ward had a mortality rate of 1 in 50, much better than the rate in Semmelweis’ section. The only difference between the sections was that Semmelweis’s section was staffed by doctors while the other was attended by midwives. The doctors were also involved in research on cadavers but, other than that, there were no significant differences between the two sections except for the differing mortality rates. Semmelweis tried to do everything in his power to fix the problem, but nothing worked.

During a four-month leave to another hospital, something intriguing happened. The mortality rate in his section had fallen significantly. Obviously, there were clues in this and Semmelweis started to investigate the research done by the doctors on cadavers. This was the origin of germ theory and led to his conclusion that “‘particles’ from cadavers and other diseased patients were being transmitted to healthy patients on the hands of the physicians .” As a result, a policy was instituted that required doctors to wash their hands thoroughly in a solution of chlorine and lime. The death rate immediately plummeted to 1 in 100. Indeed, the doctors were the carriers.

The authors use the above story as a metaphor to describe people problems in organizations that are often caused by managers who are “carriers of the disease” but tend to blame others as the culprits. What about you – are you in the box, blaming others for problems or are you a highly effective leader who has learned to  look in the mirror and investigate his/her role in the problem (being out of the box)?

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