What if I am the Problem?
Arrogance and Ignorance have consequences. I am reminded of a story that appeared in the book Leadership and Self Deception: Getting out of the Box (2000) (The Arbinger Institute). View a book summary at https://learningomnivores.com/what-were-reading/leadership-self-deception/
Of course, doctors are highly regarded. Back in the1800s, they were even more highly thought of for their competence When you have a high status in the eyes of the community, those with status start believing they are invincible.
When I was in high school, many years ago, our football team got rave reviews. We had press clippings telling us how good we were. We lost one game that year early in the season. We were bigger and stronger than the other team. We were supposed to win easily. They were small and fast. Lesson learned we thought we were so good and got upset. No, they won mainly because of attitude and teamwork. We were too busy reading in the paper how good we were.
Here is a story from Leadership and Self-Deception that I think makes the point about arrogance and ignorance. Maybe a lesson for people with lots of power and position.
What If I am The PROBLEM?
Have you ever heard of Ignaz Semmelweis? he asked. (He pronounced it Ignawtz Semelvice.)
No, I don’t think so. Is it a sickness or something?
No, no, Bud said with a chuckle. But close. Semmelweis was a European doctor, an obstetrician, in the mid-1800s. He worked at Vienna’s General hospital, an important research hospital, where he tried to get to the bottom of a horrendous mortality rate among women in the maternity ward. In the section of the ward where Semmelweis practiced, the mortality rate was one in ten. Think of it. One in every ten women giving birth there died! Can you imagine?
I wouldn’t have let my wife near the place, I said.
You wouldn’t have been alone. Vienna General had such a frightening reputation that some women actually gave birth on the street and then went to the hospital.
I can’t blame them, I said.
Nor can I, Bud agreed.
The collection of symptoms associated with these deaths, he continued, became known as childbed fever. Conventional medical science at the time called for separate treatment for each symptom. Inflammation meant excess blood was causing swelling-so they bled the patient or applied leeches. They treated fever the same way. Trouble breathing meant the air was bad so they improved ventilation. And so on. But nothing worked. More than half the women who contracted the disease died within days.
The terrible risk was well known. Semmelweis reported that patients were frequently seen kneeling and wringing their hands, begging to be moved to a second section of the maternity ward where the mortality rate was one in fifty-still horrific, but far better than the one-in-ten rate in Semmelweis’s section.
Semmelweis gradually became obsessed with the problem-in particular with discovering why the mortality rate in one section of the maternity ward was so much higher than in the other. The only obvious difference between the sections was that Semmelweis’s section was attended by doctors, while the other section was attended by midwives. He couldn’t see why that would explain the difference, so he tried to equalize every other factor among the maternity patients. He standardized everything from birthing positions to ventilation and diet. He even standardized the way the laundry was done. He looked at every possibility but could find no answer. Nothing he tried made any measurable difference in the mortality rates.
He must have been incredibly discouraged, I said.
I’d imagine so, Bud agreed. But then something happened. He took a four-month leave to visit another hospital, and upon his return, he discovered that the death rate had fallen significantly in his section of the ward in his absence.
Yes. He didn’t know why, but it had definitely fallen. He dug in to find the reason. Gradually, his inquiry led him to think about the possible significance of research done by the doctors on cadavers.
Yes, he answered. Remember, Vienna General was a teaching and research hospital. Many of the doctors split their time between research on cadavers and treatment of live patients. They hadn’t seen any problem with that practice because there was as yet no understanding of germs. All they knew were symptoms. And in examining his own work practices compared to those who worked for him in his absence, Semmelweis discovered that the only significant difference was that he, Semmelweis, spent far more time doing research on the cadavers.
From these observations, he developed a theory of childbed fever, a theory that became the precursor to germ theory. He concluded that particles from cadavers and other diseased patients were being transmitted to healthy patients on the hands of the physicians. So he immediately instituted a policy requiring physicians to wash their hands thoroughly in a chlorine and lime solution before examining any patient. And you know what happened?
I waited anxiously. What?
The death rate immediately fell to one in a hundred.
So he was right, I said, almost under my breath. The doctors were the carriers.
Yes. In fact, Semmelweis once sadly remarked, Only God knows the number of patients who went prematurely to their graves because of me. Imagine living with that. The doctors were doing the best they knew how, but they were carrying a disease they knew nothing about. It caused a multitude of debilitating symptoms, all of which could be prevented by a single act once the common cause of the symptoms was discovered ñ what was later identified as a germ.
So, I suggest we trade arrogance and ignorance for humility, agility, and integrity.