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Passion, People and Principles

You Gotta Go First

post # 172 — August 26, 2006 — a Careers, Managing post

In my post about “The Best Advice I Ever Received a wonderful lesson was contributed by Jeff Risley:

“Just remember, wherever you go, there you are.”

In other words, if you think change is needed in a situation, think about changing yourself first before changing everything around you.

I particularly like that lesson. In fact, I’m struggling to write an article with that theme, aimed at CEOs and other top executives who always want their people to change but overlook the fact that they have to go first.

If you have a story or an insight on that theme that I can use in the article, comment here or drop me an email (david@davidmaister.com ).

Wasn’t it Gandhi who said something like “You must become the change you wish to see”?


Bill Peper said:


I came across a perfect story on this in an excellent book by the Arbinger Institute, Leadership and Self-Deception. The book describes the nineteenth-century epidmic of deaths of mothers who just gave birth at a major research hospital in Vienna. The mortality rate in the midwife section of the hospital was much lower. A doctor went to other hospitals, researched everything, tested everything, and there was no solution. But the mortality rate in his unit decreased while he was gone. The only variable was his absence.

Then he realized that he was the cause. He and his fellow doctors were doing research and introducing bacteria into the women’s bodies. He institued a system of washing hands to disinfect diseases long before germ theory became prevelant. This and much more information on the doctor can be found in Childbed Fever by K. Codell and Barbara Carter.

Hope that helps.

posted on August 27, 2006

David (Maister) said:

What guts to admit it! How many CEOs in that situation would have hidden the evidence, rather than acted on it?

posted on August 27, 2006

Deepa Balaji said:

Yes it was Gandhi who said, “you must become the change you wish to see in this world”

There is a story that is attributed to Gandhi that goes as follows:

A mother came with her son to Sevagram, where Gandhi was residing. She wanted Gandhi to tell her son to stop eating too much of sugar as it was harmful for his health. Gandhi asked them to return after a week. When they returned after a week, Gandhi told the son to stop eating too much of sugar. Curious, the mother asked Gandhi, “Bapu*, why did we have to return after a week for you to tell this?” To that, Gandhi replied, “A week ago, I was eating too much of sugar.”

*one of the ways Gandhi was addressed.

posted on August 27, 2006

Greg Magnus said:


Instead of having the CEO squeeze themselves into prefabricated roles, encourage them to develop individual styles based on their own innate talents. The book, First Break All The Rules: What The World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently by Marcus Buckingham, explores this management style in depth.

Changing your own behavior or the behavior of those around you is difficult to say the least. I find you get much better results when you focus on true talents, instead of trying to correct weeknesses.

The CEOs don’t necessarily need to change themselves or those around them. They need to focus on discovering their strengths, which are not being used effectively as you stated. This concept of “You already have the talents, let’s figure out what they are” is much easier to buy into for all involved.

Thanks again for another great post.

posted on August 27, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Greg, I accept your argument, but let me repose the problem to try and accomodate your point. Here goes:

As I wrote in Strategy Means Saying “No,” CEOs must, to implement a strategy, try to get their people to change behavior and make different decisions. But subordinates won’t do that if the CEO keeps behaving, acting, saying or deciding things the same old way. If the CEO doesn’t change, no-one else will. And if no-one chnages, we’ll have the same strategy and execution.

Now, if I accept your argument (and Buckingham’s) that people don’t / can’t / shouldn’t change, then maybe the logical conclusion is that the only way to get the organization to change is for the CEO to hand over the reins to someone else.

And you know what? That may be the best option in a big majority of cases.

But I’d rather try and help a leader / manager / CEO (call it what you will) to answer the question: what do “I” have to do to get others to change?

posted on August 27, 2006

Fiona Torrance said:

David – I’ve experienced a situation where the Director of a firm was restructuring and wanted to change the organization and roles of each employee while introducing a new IT network with database to maximize productivity. As the change was being implemented, and employees were responding positive to training, the Director on the surface promoted the change but did nothing to learn or participate in the new system and adapt to the processes. The Director lacked an understanding of the “new organizational system” and was quick to criticize based on the old system. Gradually employees started leaving the firm. Personally, I try to listen and to share my views positively, to be open to constructive criticism, and to be willing to participate in a process with others that works towards change. This I hope motivates and encourages others to participate and change too. My uncle passed away last year and he lived a beautiful existence. Something he taught me was that you treat and speak to someone who cleans restrooms as you would the CEO. A good leader is never afraid to get their hands dirty, to start a job which inspires others to join in. I think there is value in this. Fiona Torrance http://www.bizblogreview.com/blog

posted on August 27, 2006

Petri Darby said:

I am always in awe of a top executive who chooses to do things differently when the status quo is already bearing such sweet fruits for those at the top. Tiger Woods was widely criticized for changing his swing when he was already winning tournaments, but he did so because he was more concerned about being the best he could be than what everyone else was doing. It’s a tough choice to make, especially when your decisions will impact so many – positively or negatively. But you are right. People follow examples, not hollow talk. I look forward to your article on the subject.

posted on August 27, 2006

Stephen Marshall said:

I think this has something to say about what you have to say David!

WHO SAID history does not repeat itself. Take the words of the Roman Petronius Arbiter of 66AD (I am indebted to a reader for bringing them to my attention):“We trained hard – but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganised. “I was to learn that later in life we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation.”

posted on August 27, 2006

Tom Lowe said:

Wherever You Go, There You Are is the title of a great book by Dr. John Kabot Zinn of Mass. General Hospital.

posted on August 30, 2006

David (Maister) said:

I checked it out, Tom, and it’s a book on meditation. Were you actually recommending it to us as a book worth reading? (I’ve always beeen too adrenaline-filled to mediatate in the past, but I accept guidance!)

posted on August 31, 2006

Duncan Bucknell said:

I’m no history scholar, but I understand that Alexander the Great was pretty good at taking on for himself what he needed his troops to do.

I highly recommend Partha Bose’s ‘Alexander the Great’s Art of Strategy’.

posted on August 31, 2006

David (Maister) said:

I’ll check it out.

Macedonians forever!

posted on August 31, 2006

Ted Harro said:


I’m intrigued by your article idea on leaders going first. It seems an obvious point, but in the last year I’ve worked with senior firm leaders (CEO’s, CIO’s, Managing Partners, Office Heads, etc.) who are trying to make significant changes in their senior teams and firms. Or at least they say they are…

But here is a disturbing pattern:

  • Some leaders who say they want a more one-firm, “we’re all in this together” atmosphere allow themselves to get into dogfights over things like personal compensation, though they make enough money to make most people blush. Anything they say after this about creating a collegial atmosphere is suspect.
  • I watched another leader who was trying to increase collaboration and shared responsibility in his team. But he consistently jumped down people’s throats in staff meetings and subtly encouraged blame games in her staff. To compound problems, he established meeting rules and broke them himself (before anyone else)!
  • A consulting firm’s office head says that her biggest risk is losing manager-level talent because of the crazy pace of the firm. But she encourages over-selling and refuses attempts to bring her own schedule under control.

These are all good people with impressive track records and huge intellects. They would logically buy that their behavior gets in their way, but they don’t “go first” anyway.

All of this reminds me of what Sharon Begley recently wrote in a Wall Street Journal article in reference to the continued conflict in the Middle East – that much of change is beyond reason and rationality, falling instead into the realm of “sacred beliefs.” Surfacing, challenging, and bartering with those sacred beliefs may be a step toward helping leaders go first.

posted on September 5, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Ted, this is very helpful stuff.

But, hey, everybody, there’s gotta be some GOOD examples out there. We can’t complain and moan ALL the time, can we?

Does anyone have an example – even a tiny one – of a manager who got it right?

Someone who energized an organization a team by the force of their personal example, perhaps?

Leo suggested Rosenbluth, and he’s right.

But does anyone got some other (perhaps less well known) anecdotes?

posted on September 5, 2006