More than 200 years ago, a disease called Puerperal Fever, also known as the Black Death of Child Bed, spread across Europe and made its way to America. This disease ravaged Europe and America and was responsible for the deaths of thousands of women. What was happening was that women were dying within 48 hours after giving birth. And in some cases, the statistics were shockingly high, reaching up to 70% of women dying within days of giving birth.
As it was the renaissance period, science and medicine had taken center stage. No longer was tradition and mysticism a normal part of society. The doctors of the day were considered to be highly intellectual and men of science who knew everything.
As Puerperal Fever continued to grip communities across America and Europe, it was these men of science who wanted to find out the root cause of what was happening, so they got to work. In the mornings they would conduct autopsies and study the corpses of the women who had died. Later in the day, they would deliver babies.
Around 1850, a physician by the name of Oliver Wendall Holmes realized that the doctors who had been conducting autopsies in the morning were not washing their hands before going to deliver babies in the afternoon. He immediately called out the doctors within the medical system and told them that ‘they were the problem’.
What ensued was a tragedy. These doctors ignored him and called him crazy and for 30 years they continued their same routines each day. And during this time, Puerperal Fever continued to steal the lives of countless women.
Finally, someone realized that if the doctors simply washed their hands and sterilized their equipment, the Black Death of Child Bed would go away. And that is exactly what happened.
I first heard this story in a Simon Sinek talk that he gave a few years ago. In Simon’s own words he says:
“My lesson here is sometimes YOU ARE THE PROBLEM. People can sometimes blame everyone else, but my point is take accountability for your actions. You can take all the credit for the things you do right AS LONG AS you also take responsibility for the things you do wrong. It must be a balanced equation.”
It can be very easy to point blame everywhere else in our lives when things do not go well. When we encounter things such as resistance, push-back, failed projects, relationships gone bad, etc, it can be our default setting to blame others. But, as illustrated in Simon’s story, to what extent might we be the problem?
This story applies to everyone in every role, but even more so for the leaders in today’s world. To lead with authenticity and purpose and put people first in an organization, leaders must remember to always balance the equation. Absolutely celebrate and take credit for the successes of your organization, but be equally ready to take responsibility when things go wrong or need to be improved.
KAUST Faculty, Pedagogical Coach. Presenter & Workshop Leader.IB Educator. #RunYourLife podcast host.