A lesson on leadership from a diabetic drunkard

November 21, 2013

Read time 2 min

Years ago I spent a summer working as a security guard at a mall. One day when on shift I got a call from the grocery store. A drunkard had passed out right in front of their main exit and they wanted him removed.

When I arrived on the scene I noticed there was a small black container open next to him on the ground. It seemed to contain insulin supplies. Instead of booze, he might have passed out while trying to inject insulin to treat his diabetes.

I called for an ambulance and it arrived swiftly. The paramedic rolled up the drunkard’s sleeve, inserted an IV and started pumping sugar water through the IV. Very quickly, in a minute or so, he started coming to.

When he regained consciousness there was a moment for the paramedic to make an impact. The situation was ripe for some advice on life. “You know”, the paramedic said, “you should drink some liqueurs every now and then to keep your sugar levels in check”.

Now this is sound advice if your goal is to be a diabetic drunkard. Of course, if you want to improve your quality of life in general there might be a bigger picture you want to attend to.

Later I’ve realized how often we resort to similar quick fixes in companies. We see problems and we try to address them directly without seeing the bigger picture. We fail to see the organization as a system in which everything is interconnected.

The human body is a system and we’ve learned to see it as one. To fix a back ache we don’t focus our efforts only on the back. We possibly add some exercise, change shoes or stretch more during workdays. We know the parts are interconnected so we look at the whole.

Likewise, an organization is a system and we should see it as one. To improve performance we must act on the system as a whole, not on the parts in isolation. Otherwise we’re just drinking liqueur.

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