James Garfield had been the United States president for just four months before he was shot in 1881 while walking to his train. The official cause of death is blood poisoning and complications from the shooting, but ignorance and stubbornness played a more substantial role.

At the time, doctors in America did not use antiseptic or take proactive measures to lessen germs and infections. The Europeans had already adopted such practices, but in the U.S. doctors lay Garfield on the train station platform and no less than 12 of them probed his wound with unsterilized fingers in search of the bullet! While they had the best of intentions, hindsight reveals that Garfield would have likely survived the gunshot, even with the bullet remaining inside him, had it not been for the human-induced germs. Instead, he died a grueling 80 days later.

Doctors in the United States soon embraced antiseptics, but at the time their actions were more detrimental than doing nothing. It’s not that they did not know about the Listerian Theory that germs caused disease; they just did not believe it because it ran contrary to their decades of thinking that illness was caused by things you could see.

Consider the ways you may be acting like the doctors in 1881. What knowledge have you dismissed because it does not fit with your current model? Have you done all you can to expose yourself to new thinking and modern advances in your field? Are you open to asking for help when confronted with a problem? Are there things you are doing that are causing more harm than good to your self or your organization? The medical community learned from President Garfield’s death; perhaps you can too.

Thanks to Margo Kemp Johnson for this idea.

Source:  How Doctors Killed President Garfield, CBS News, July 5, 2012. To read more, click here.

About the Author leadership dots by dr. beth triplett

Dr. beth triplett is the owner of leadership dots, offering coaching, training and consulting for new supervisors. She also shares daily lessons on her leadershipdots blog. Her work is based on the leadership dots philosophy that change happens through the intentional connecting of small steps in the short term to the big picture in the long term.

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