Last week I wrote about Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. Gawande deals with what patients and doctors DON’T want to deal with . . . the inevitability of death. The denial of death often results in brutalizing treatments that make life more painful (and sometimes even shorter) than is necessary, and the denial means people make choices without real awareness of benefits, costs, and alternatives. Even with eyes wide open to mortality, the decisions are anything but easy, for they involve an ever-imperfect guesswork at the effects – good and ill – of various treatments. And they involve difficult trade-offs.
In his practice, Gawande increasingly came to ask his patients a number of questions to humanize treatment and allow them the best possible choices. A central question was: “At this juncture (often of decline), what are your goals?” In leadership, I refer to this as “Always think from right to left.” Facing serious illness, most people seem to “think” “I don’t want to look down the timeline to the right, because that is where death awaits,” and so, they think, “do anything to keep me from that (and even from thinking about that).” And, as a consequence, they fall into a state of dependence and hoping. Gawande suggests the better question than the unspoken “how and when will I die,” (which no one can answer) is instead: “Not knowing when death will come, how do I want to live?” This question can not only affect the treatment they get – now, they are no longer purely dependent – but it can also affect how they spend the precious time and energy allotted.
Every great leader I have known, seen or read about does not just put one…foot…in…front…of the other, give their power away to experts, and spend their energy in a combination of hope, denial, and despair. They ask what matters – in the end. They set goals! And they stay on purpose.
This week I will share my BCE with my students and assign them to write and share their BCE with me. BCE stands for “best class ever.” It is a “thinking right to left,” and it involves the daring of thinking about goals and committing to them. Best Class Ever is not, as it may have been in the past from them, how clear, interesting, smart, and fair the prof is. And for me, it’s not about getting 6s and 7s from them when they evaluate me, though they surely matter. Instead, it is about what each of us wants to say “at the end” of the semester. What will each of us fix our eyes on, as we look and think from right to left? Circumstances will spring up – like cancer spreads or chemo halts the spread. But how do we want to live? What can we fix on now, that will evoke purposeful practice, as we
Lead with our best self.