Honorable Intent, Detrimental Effect

Category: Columnists

Building Future Leaders

Your intentions are good. You want to help. Something unexpectedly goes wrong, and the effect of your behavior is extremely damaging. You’re devastated. But, you’re not alone. It happens to all of us. The following historical example illustrates that what we intend is not always what occurs.
Imagine Europe in the middle 1800s. An obstetrician named Ignatz Semmelweis was concerned about the number of new mothers in Vienna dying from puerperal or “childbed” fever. With an insatiable desire to learn, he had worked for many years in a research hospital, sharing his knowledge with young doctors. Despite every effort to serve his patients well, an astonishing 13 percent of new mothers under his care died after giving birth.
Because of a shortage of trained physicians, midwives cared for some of the new mothers in an adjacent ward. The deaths from childbed fever there were only 2 percent. What could explain the difference in the death rate? Semmelweis was perplexed. He expected that the results should be far better in the ward served by the more educated professionals.

Semmelweis equalized all the factors between the two wards. He standardized birth positions, diets, laundry preparation and even ventilation to the rooms. No matter what he adjusted, the mortality differences remained the same. How could the difference be so drastic?

Insight came in a sad way. A close friend died shortly after conducting an autopsy. The symptoms that he exhibited in his final days were identical to those of childbed fever. Investigation revealed that his friend had accidentally cut himself during the autopsy.

Semmelweis speculated that particles from the cadaver contaminated his friend’s wound. This being a teaching hospital, the doctors, including Semmelweis, split their time between research on cadavers and treatment of live patients. The midwives, however, were never involved with the cadavers.

To test his hypothesis, Semmelweis instituted a policy requiring doctors to wash their hands thoroughly in chlorinated lime after examining a cadaver. He theorized that this action would destroy the decomposing organic particles. Immediately, the death rate in the maternity ward served by the doctors dropped to 1 percent. (Note: This occurred years before French biologist Louis Pasteur proposed his germ theory and Englishman Joseph Lister developed the concept of antiseptics.)

Semmelweis was stunned. He wrote in his journal, “Only God knows the number of patients who went prematurely to their graves because of me.” With deeply honorable intentions, the very hands that were devoted to sustaining life were killing the new mothers who were his patients!

How do new mothers dying at the hands of Semmelweis relate to leaders today?

Like Semmelweis, when you and other leaders take action, you expect certain outcomes. Usually, you just assume that what you intend is what occurs. Though the outcome may not be a death, it could be a disappointed customer, employee or family member.

Are you affecting important people in your life in ways that are unknown to you? Are there effects of your actions that sometimes are very different from what you intend? How would you know? Ask!

Ask your customers what they like and what they would prefer to change about your products and your methods of delivery. Ask them how you might improve your service to them.

Ask your employees about their work environment. What resources would allow them to be more productive and responsive to the needs of the individuals they serve?
Ask your husband or wife how your behaviors match the expectations he or she had when you were first married. In what ways might you love and serve more satisfactorily?

Effective leaders ask questions and listen. They seek feedback on their behaviors. They are willing to choose different behaviors based on what they learn. Feedback prevents false assumptions and improves the level of trust in relationships!

Your intentions and the effects of your behaviors may be quite different. Beware the trap of just assuming that they are identical!

Dennis Hooper is a leadership coach, helping leaders build organizations of excellence and future leaders. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call him at 478-988-0237. His Web site is

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