Reflections on Life and Leadership: Treating the Cause, Not the Symptom

Diagnosing disease is often a matter of determining what illness the patient does not have. For instance, a physician may order an MRI for a patient suffering from headaches to rule out such things as a tumor or possible aneurysm. Orthopedic surgeons order x-rays to rule out fractures, dislocations, and broken bones. Until they have ruled out those possible causes they are likely to provide some treatment for the painful symptoms. Yet a good physician will never assume his treatments actually address the cause of a problem. Like the physician, any effective leader will do the same within his or her organization.

Effective diagnosis requires understanding of when the symptoms began and what actually precipitated it. In business, financial data can tell us when revenues began to fall. Employee surveys can tell us when morale dropped. Customer service surveys can tell us when we began to lose the faith and confidence of our customers. In life, our checkbooks can tell us when we began to spend more than we make. And the scale can tell us when we began to gain those extra pounds. (For me it began about 30 years ago!) In short, if we are to recognize ta problem, we must have a reliable and regular means of evaluating the symptoms that concern us. Regrettably, knowing when the symptoms began is not enough for the leader just as it isn’t for the physician.

Using both quantitative and qualitative measures, the leader must “drill down” into the information to find the cause. To be effective, he must recognize his own experience, expertise, and shortcomings have the potential to cloud his judgment just as it can empower it. The ability to set aside one’s own prejudices (and ego) is essential to effective diagnosis. The scriptural admonition the “in a multitude of counselors there is much wisdom” comes to mind. Without discounting his experience, a leader must not forget to listen. When he begins to believe he knows “enough” the would-be leader is at greatest risk of an ineffective or foolish decision. And when treatment of symptoms rather than the cause of a malady become more probable.

The danger of treating symptoms is the loss of credibility an organization and its leaders may experience. Demanding more of sales people to drive revenue is a common treatment for poor trends. Yet falling sales activity may be the result of a far deeper problem such as employee morale. It may be related to product quality or price creating a reticence in the sales force. When customer satisfaction falls leaders may respond with more training for customer service representatives when the real issue is the number of representatives available to respond to the problem. In our private lives having a budget may not cure overspending, just as a diet will not always lead to sustained weight loss. We must get to the root of the issue and deal with what its cause. In short, treating symptoms can lead to frustration and a perpetuation of the actual problem.

When the patient has a headache the compassionate and effective physician will first attempt to “do no harm.” Leaders would do well to follow such wisdom. Even as the physician treats the symptoms of a headache with medication we, as leaders, may do so as well. Yet to keep the trust of those we would lead we must commit ourselves to finding the cause of the problem and prescribing a cure. Anything less isn’t leadership. At best, it is simply “managed care.” At worst, it exacerbates a problem like side effects from a prescription. Keep the faith.