CEO Coaching: Do No Harm?

CEO Coaching: Do No Harm?A recent interview on NPR with a Dr. Danielle Ofri, who researched medical errors in her book “When We Do Harm” caught my attention. As she points out, many of the errors—which in the medical world can lead to serious harm or death—are preventable. The parallels to aviation are significant. Standardizing procedures, using checklists and allowing for observation and dissention by others can all lead to better outcomes.

It is this later point that also applies to business and leadership. In days of old, doctors, pilots, military officers and CEOs were godlike, never to be questioned. A few still act that way but they are fortunately diminishing rapidly. 

As Dr. Ofri points out, one significant way that doctors can avoid error is by allowing nurses to call them out when they do something wrong. (Gasp!) Airlines realized years ago that if they changed the cockpit environment to allow second officers to call out mistakes or oversights by the pilot-in-command, they were less likely to break metal and bones. When my son was in the Marines in Iraq, he shared several stories of non-commissioned officers calling out poor decisions by officers.

Do CEOs sometimes have to buck traditional thought and make independent, tough decisions that conflicts with what their team advises him to do? Absolutely! If you can’t do that, you shouldn’t be in the big chair. Should they do this on a routine basis? Absolutely not! Even if you are truly the “smartest guy in the room” you’re an idiot (probably narcissistic and a control freak as well) if you call all of the shots yourself. Just stay home and day-trade stocks (you call them all correct, don’t you?). At least you won’t drive others nuts as you flame out.

I see leaders who move towards greater transparency, vulnerability and collaboration generally produce better results. Their people are more committed, turnover is lower, decisions are more thoroughly vetted, and they have stronger teams. Who willing works for a narcissistic control freak? 

Physicians take the Hippocratic oath to “first do no harm,” which may be a bit too risk averse an orientation for business. Just like investing, you have to take some risk to achieve gain. However, when, how and how often you take that risk is a good topic for serious leaders to consider. Don’t look to avoid all error, but rather look to balance risk and potential reward. If you allow others to weigh in on decisions and are transparent about your mistakes, you may not save lives, but you will have a healthier, more successful business.

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