Why am I doing this?

By  |  November 30, 2009 | 

Troy Ahlstrom writes…

Assume one will question leadership’s motivation.  State your good intentions clearly and avoid allowing others to infer ill will.

Last month, we ruminated on the foundation of credible leadership, integrity.  This month, we survey how we get from that foundation to actually carrying out a program as an organization.  The all important intermediary step is demonstration of intent.  Our intentions or motives comprise the inseparable link between who we are and what we must accomplish as leaders of an organization.

The basic truth is this – we judge others by their behavior while we tend to judge ourselves by our intentions.  Think about that for a moment.  When I present a plan to a colleague or group, I know why I believe we should pursue this objective.  I set out how we should approach the issue at hand.  I know that my intentions for this are honorable and that the goal is for everyone to prosper together.  But, what do the others in the group know of my intentions?  The simple answer is that intentions are inferred, unless one makes them explicit by stating them outright.

Think of a situation where things didn’t go well as you had planned.  When we look at ourselves regarding that plan, we see what we wanted to accomplish rather than the failure to meet the objective.  We grant ourselves the benefit of the doubt based on our upright motivation.  What do others see?  They tend to look at the failed plan.  They look at our behavior pursuing that plan and attempt to judge our motives.  Unfortunately, this often turns out poorly for us.  Others entertain the notion that the failed attempt was actually intended.  Or, it may have been unintentional, but brought about by our selfish aims.  They assume flawed behavior grew from ill intent and improper motives…  We judge ourselves by our intentions while we judge others by their behavior.

These situations come about as a natural course of human interaction, especially in the crucible of constant change, deadlines for decisions, and significant consequences.  Unfortunately, we, as physicians, tend to be ill equipped for such circumstances.  Frankly, we tend to avoid untested change, test others plans as any “good scientist” should, and look for the flaws and pitfalls in any proposal.  These are not necessarily bad behaviors.  They are reasonable approaches to a problem.  But they often lead to failure to meet the deadline and inability to make an important decision.  We’ve all become paralyzed at times by such circumstances.  We get into trouble when we allow ourselves to make the irrational leap that the organization or leadership brought this circumstance upon us to harm us and then lash out at others.  It’s unproductive, and I’ve done it too.  Luckily, I’ve found that others respond to an apology.  (And food, flowers, or other tokens of appreciation always seem to help!)

Who does this well?  I think the U.S. Air Force does a great job of displaying their organizational intent.  They state it clearly and they follow through.  When members of the service step out of line, they counsel, reprimand, or appropriately punish their members who display ill intent and bad behavior.  Such consistency of integrity and intent garners military members trust.  In fact, the U.S. Military is consistently listed as one of the most admired and trusted professions in America, and they often rank higher than physicians!  I’m convinced that this stems from strength of foundational integrity and well demonstrated, altruistic motives.  Given that their behavior involves the use of force to reach an objective, the armed forces must clearly spell out WHO they are, WHAT they intend to do, and WHY they intend to do it.  They simply cannot allow one to infer intentions from behavior which could appropriately be labeled as targeted and structured violence against others, albeit others whose integrity and intentions we deem highly suspect.

Integrity first, Service before self, and Excellence in all we do comprise U.S. Air Force core values.  Focusing on the second, Service, one gathers intent.  The USAF intends to use its power to serve others, not to glorify or empower itself.  It certainly will not tolerate debasing others as that opposes their intention of service to one’s country, citizens, and civilians within their scope of influence.  This is laid out clearly to the volunteer members of our military as follows, “Service before self tells us that professional duties take precedence over personal desires.”  Examples of expected behaviors that outwardly demonstrate the intent of Service before self include: rule following, respect for others, discipline and self-control, and maintaining faith in the system.

The last principle – maintaining faith in the system – can be especially difficult for all of us.  Let’s face it, our programs and systems fail to accomplish objectives, but we must remember that this is not a failure of appropriate motivation.  It is a failure of the process itself.  We must not allow others to suffer from our misinterpretation of organizational intent.  In fact, those that consistently assume ill intent from others need to examine their own character and motives as the well-spring of that which they foolishly assume exists only in others.  We should not ascribe intentions to others that we would not attribute to ourselves in the same situation.  Let us commit ourselves to avoiding this particular pitfall.  Our families, colleagues, and organizations will bless us for it.

In summary, let your good intentions be known.  Clearly state them, and bring others along in the process.  Once stated, follow through carefully, because your personal and organizational credibility will rise or fall based on your performance.


  1. Mirella Schweigart December 30, 2010 at 8:51 pm - Reply

    Hellow friend, Me browse around through website search several article and drop your website. Honestly, I`am impressed with articles which you published on this blog. I think that u have much understanding on article topic and wrote it with very great ways. I think that you have writing talent on yourself. I bookmark this website, will come here again. You`re my friend and you is rocks man!!!

    • Troy Ahlstrom December 30, 2010 at 11:51 pm - Reply

      Mirella, thanks for the support. Honestly though, I’m fairly wordy in my prose. I think my technical writing professor from undergrad would throw me to the wolves for use of passive constructs. In any case, leadership and management can be difficult. We struggle to find the best solutions to our problems and to get everyone to participate in finding those solutions.

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