“I’m not a doctor but I did go to a leadership seminar last night”


Let’s imagine the following scene… You are sitting in the exam room with your feet dangling off the end of the sanitary-paper-covered, plastic couch admiring the jar of tongue depressors when in walks the doctor…

“How are you today Scott?”

“Doing well Doc, just a little pain in my stomach, I’m thinking it might be indigestion or maybe heartburn… I have been…”

“Hold on!” exclaims the Doctor. “You say your stomach hurts?”

“Yep”, I reply, “Every night, right after dinner I get…”

“ULCER!” shouts the Doctor. “We gotta treat that right away!”.

“Wha? I mean why do you um…how could you know? , I stammer quite shocked and disturbed. My stomach now hurts more than it did when I came in.

“Well last time I had a patient come in with a stomach ache it turned out to be an ulcer, I treated it and he got better. Remember, I have a lot of experience with these things, plus I went to medical school so let me tell you what you need to do…”, the Doctor then begins prescribing a long list of dietary changes, medications and treatments based on this rather abrupt diagnosis.

“Um… thank you?” I mumble now completely off-balance, but mostly angry as I leave the room. Why did I bother coming to see this guy? He clearly didn’t even try to understand what was going on with me? How could he possibly try diagnosing my condition without even asking me any questions or doing any tests? He is the Doctor though so I guess I better do what he says even though I don’t think that’s the issue…or maybe I’ll just ignore him and go get some Tums. I definitely won’t trust this guy with my health in the future.

Sure, sounds ridiculous but leaders behave like this all the time. In our efforts to appear competent, keep things moving and control the situation we jump to a prescription while spending very little time on the diagnosis. When we jump to conclusions we often land far from the mark.

  • We minimize the person and the problem
  • We discourage learning and stifle creativity
  • We undermine trust and credibility
  • We inspire passive aggressive behavior
  • We create dependent people
  • We invent new problems rather than solutions

A competent doctor takes time to understand and asks probing questions to reveal information that will form a more accurate diagnosis. She trusts that you know your body better than she does and allows you to explain what is happening from your perspective and how it is affecting your health. She compliments you for taking charge of your health and seeks to form a partnership and develop a treatment plan that will address the source of the problem rather than treating the only the symptoms.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” ~ Albert Einstein

Leaders are organizational health practitioners. Organizations are living organisms. We can translate any problem our team brings to us into an opportunity to serve the entire body. To not only address the obvious symptoms but also to search for clues that may reveal underlying problems we can eradicate before they become a serious organizational health risk.

  • Be curious
  • Take time to hear the whole story without interrupting
  • Listen for clues that invite further exploration
  • Ask open-ended questions that lead to shared discovery
  • Bring in others who might add a fresh perspective
  • Go as deep as you can to find the source of the problem
  • Agree on your hypothesis
  • Then, together, imagine a plan that will address the problem
  • Plan further checkpoints to gauge progress
  • Adapt  plan as needed

All of this sounds like common sense but I challenge you to monitor yourself and see how easy it is to jump to the prescription rather than do the work to really understand the problem. Over the years these half-baked solutions add up to what I like to call the “Great Wall of Band Aids”. Some organizations literally have so many band-aids in place they have to create more band-aids to fix the band-aids. The organization eventually ends up with most of its resources dedicated to life support and addicted to “medications” that don’t serve the mission. The best leaders know that a little more time spent up front, working with creative and talented people, will yield a more accurate, innovative and elegant solution than “vaccinating from the hip”.

Caveat – yes there are times when it’s an “ER” situation and you have to jump in, take charge and keep the patient alive before you can figure out what caused the emergency. Fully understandable and completely appropriate. Just don’t get so caught up in the adrenalin rush that you treat every head cold like a head trauma.

In the immortal words of Dr. House… “It’s never Lupus”.

Here’s to building a leadership wellness program focused on prevention rather than medication.

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12 thoughts on ““I’m not a doctor but I did go to a leadership seminar last night”

  1. The key to good to great medicine, business, leadership and life is to listen attentively to what is being said, and not said.


  2. alaskachick says:

    I’ve seen that wall!
    This is indeed a great post, Scott, thank you for writing it. Seriously? My first thought was, “Oh no, did I do that when…?” I also really like the step by step diagnosis procedure. I will definitely read this again (probably at least a few times!) and make sure it is completely absorbed to prevent the misdiagnosis in our future.

    And hey, if Dr. House says it’s never Lupus, then there ya have it.


    • scott_elumn8 says:

      I’m sure most of us have. :) I am glad you liked the steps. I tried to look at this from the perspective of the person seeking help. How would I want my (boss, doctor, car repair person, etc.) to treat me when I am trying to solve a problem. Thanks for stopping by. Great website by the way. I have always wanted to visit Alaska!


  3. Great post Scott! Immediately imagined times I’be been on the receiving end of similar experiences with doctors, hair-stylists, car sales people, waiters… And then thought of times I’ve been on the delivering end of those same experiences! Thank you for the making me smile and holding up a mirror at the same time!


    • scott_elumn8 says:

      Hi Chery, thanks for joining the conversation. :) I know what you mean. As I was writing this I was reminded of how often I fall into this mental trap. In fact it was events that took place during the week that inspired this post. There are so many applications in sales, service, education. Clearly the higher path but not easy to master in a world that seems to thrive on quick fixes.


  4. Excellent post Scott: I especially relate to the “Great Wall of Bandaids” which I’ve unfortunately seen with some clients. Every person, every business, every situation is unique. When we treat everyone and all with broad brush strokes, we really aren’t providing anything of value.
    Ask questions
    Listen with the intention of understanding
    Value the source
    Provide options
    Think possibilities, not probabilities
    Cheers! Kaarina


  5. Dan Forbes says:

    Leadership by triage is a recipe for disaster. Great post, Scott.


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