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Taking a Healthy Advantage

It’s the first week of January as I write this and everyone is merrily making New Year’s resolutions, knowing full well that the likelihood of success is less than the odds of Snooki becoming poet laureate. (And shame on you if that reference makes sense!) In fact, my colleagues and I already went off the wagon at lunch today, celebrating a birthday with a cake that had more chocolate than … well, let’s just say it was more than I should have had in one sitting.

So, knowing full well how difficult it may be, here’s my New Year’s challenge to you: Read The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni.
I’ve been around management “self-help” books forever, and I’m as big a skeptic as any. I was introduced to this book by a friend and colleague whose organization is in transition. The company is doing well, but he’s smart enough to recognize growing pains and the importance of being proactive—about spending time and resources on prevention, rather than waiting for something to break.
The Advantage is definitely not sexy, with a gimmicky way to increase productivity, manage change or improve creativity. It’s not a simple parable or an easy afternoon read. Rather, it’s about organizational health; in substance it’s more like eating vegetables and getting in your daily walk than the latest diet fad or ab master.

Lencioni believes that just about every organization has access to the best thinking when it comes to things like technology, sales, competitive analysis, marketing and operations, but being smart is not nearly enough. “In twenty years of consulting, I have yet to meet a group of leaders who made me think, Wow, these people just don’t know enough about their business to succeed,” he writes. The difference between successful organizations and mediocre or unsuccessful ones, he says, has little to do with what they know or how smart they are, but how healthy they are.

The basic premise of the book is that healthy organizations inevitably get smarter and more productive over time. Conversely, smart organizations aren’t able to get healthier by virtue of their intelligence. He compares this concept to betting on the future of two kids: one raised by loving parents in a solid home and the other a product of apathy and dysfunction. You would always bet on the former despite the resources surrounding him or her—and it’s the same for organizations, he says.

The rest of the book describes, in detail and in practical ways, how a healthy organization behaves and how you can lead yours toward that goal. There’s nothing earth-shattering about this, but I appreciate how it pulls together leadership theory about motivation, communication, strategy and teamwork in an uncomplicated, practical way. It’s back to basics, but it’s satisfying and filling.

The book asks leaders and their teams to answer six questions:

  • Why do we exist?
  • How do we behave?
  • What do we do?
  • How will we succeed?
  • What is most important right now?
  • Who must do what?

I experienced the “30,000 foot view” of this approach in practice at a recent meeting of the management team of the organization I referenced above. We were all assigned to read The Advantage before the meeting.

With the help of a facilitator, the team went through the six questions. Prior to the meeting, everyone thought they were in pretty good shape. But under scrutiny it turned out to be more complicated than that. The team couldn’t easily articulate their vision (why they exist), or what was important to do right now. (Not next year, but in the next three months—it turns out this question revealed remarkable differences in priorities that had never been raised in this way before.) There was confusion about who was doing what and who was ultimately accountable. A culture of trying to “be nice” and avoiding conflict sometimes led to inefficiency and poor decisions—because people didn’t know how to champion ideas in a way that wasn’t inflammatory or degrading to others.

The meeting ended well, with group consensus on what areas they needed to work on and a clear path to get there. Granted, no organization is going to get healthy in a day, but it starts with self- awareness—and the motivation to change.

As Lencioni puts it, “Healthy organizations recover from setbacks, attract the best people, repel the others and create opportunities that they couldn’t have expected.”

Sign me up.

Comments? Questions? Drop Keith an e-mail at

Produced in partnership with NEMSMA, Paramedic Chief: Best Practices for the Progressive EMS Leader provides the latest research and most relevant leadership advice to EMS managers and executives. From emerging trends to analysis and insight, practical case studies to leadership development advice, Paramedic Chief is packed with useful, valuable ideas you simply can’t get anywhere else.