The Paradoxical Commandments of Leadership and Healthcare

The Paradoxical Commandments of Leadership and Healthcare

While Kent Keith has not said such to me, it seems obvious that at the root of The Paradoxical Commandments are the virtues of personal passion, trust and hope. It seems that the leadership required for the transformation of healthcare will embrace those commandments and will exhibit the Personal Mastery describe by Peter Senge. 


On Aug. 27, 1998, I wrote SETMA’s leadership a note in which I quoted Sir Winston Churchill who, speaking to his private secretary, John Colville, on Aug. 27, 1940, said, “Each night, I try myself by court martial to see if I have done anything effective during the day. I don’t mean just pawing the ground – anyone can go through the motions – but something really effective.” Successful leadership over a lifetime is made up of successful leadership for one day.

I added to this note the challenge, “Try each day to accomplish something significant, and in the end you will succeed in your job. As a leader, you must be true to yourself and not be disappointed with others. You must assist them in becoming all they can be.” I quoted an editorial titled, “Leadership Paradoxes,” in which William McCumber listed 10 conclusions about people in general. He found these ideas in a newspaper article about Howard Ferguson, a wrestling coach, who purportedly initially formulated the list. (Read on to find the 10 principles and the true source of these remarkable ideas.)

Origin of The Paradoxical Commandments

Recently, I wanted to use these ideas but was unable to find them. I searched the Web and that is when I discovered that the attribution of this work to Ferguson was not correct. This material comes from 

“The Paradoxical Commandments were written by Kent Keith in 1968 when he was 19 and a sophomore at Harvard College. The commandments were part of “The Silent Revolution: Dynamic Leadership in the Student Council,” his first booklet for high school student leaders. Kent encouraged students to care about others, and to work through the system to achieve change. One thing he learned was students didn’t know how to work through the system to bring about change. Some of them also tended to give up quickly when they faced difficulties or failures. They needed deeper, longer-lasting reasons to keep trying.

“Kent said, ‘I saw a lot of idealistic young people go out into the world to do what they thought was right and good and true, only to come back a short time later discouraged or embittered because they got negative feedback, or nobody appreciated them, or they failed to get the results they had hoped for. … I told them that if they were going to change the world, they had to really love people, and if they did, that love would sustain them. I also told them that they couldn’t be in it for fame or glory. I said that if they did what was right and good and true, they would find meaning and satisfaction, and that meaning and satisfaction would be enough. If they had the meaning, they didn’t need the glory.’

“In his sophomore year at Harvard, Kent began writing a booklet for high school student leaders that addressed both the how and the why of leading change. … It was published by Harvard Student Agencies in 1968. The Paradoxical Commandments were part of Chapter Two, titled ‘Brotherly What?’

“‘I laid down the Paradoxical Commandments as a challenge,’ Keith said. ‘The challenge is to always do what is right and good and true, even if others don’t appreciate it. You have to keep striving, no matter what, because if you don’t, many of the things that need to be done in our world will never get done.’”

When I discovered this information, I wrote Kent and he has given me permission to quote his work. The following is the copy of “The Paradoxical Commandments” he sent to me:


By Kent M. Keith


1. People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.

2. If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Do good anyway.

3. If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.

4. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.

5. Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.

6. The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.

7. People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

8. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.

9. People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway.

10. Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you have anyway.

Why paradoxical commandments and healthcare?

While he has not said such to me, it seems obvious that at the root of The Paradoxical Commandments are the virtues of personal passion, trust and hope. Coincidently, I leave on Saturday to attend the Harvard Kennedy School’s Executive Education program titled “Shaping Healthcare Delivery Policy” (Jan 27 – Feb. 1, 2013). Kent started his University education near where this event will be held. And it might turn out that one of the keys to the success of healthcare policy decisions will depend upon the development of leaders who can embrace and endure the Paradoxical Commandments.

The leaders of this Kennedy School’s program are original thinkers who have been nationally recognized leaders in healthcare for decades. They have led government agencies and have developed national strategies for transforming healthcare such as the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s Triple Aim, the Office of National Coordinator of Health Information Technologies’ Meaningful Use and other seminal contributions.

The kind of leaders who are needed to support and successfully deploy these policies and goals are those who have what Peter Senge (“The Fifth Discipline”) identifies as “personal mastery.” They are:

• They have a special sense of purpose that lies behind their vision and goals. For such a person, a vision is a calling rather than simply a good idea.

• They see current reality as an ally, not an enemy. They have learned how to perceive and work with forces of change rather than resist those forces.

• They are deeply inquisitive, committed to continually seeing reality more and more accurately.

• They feel connected to others and to life itself.

• Yet, they sacrifice none of their uniqueness.

• They feel as if they are part of a larger creative process, which they can influence but cannot unilaterally control.

• They live in a continual learning mode.

• They never ARRIVE!

• They are acutely aware of their ignorance, their incompetence, and their growth areas.

• And they are deeply self-confident!

Personal mastery is what leaders require if they are going to persevere through the Paradoxical Commandments. That perseverance is what is required to translate the ideals, principles and policies of national leaders into practical experience in healthcare. These leaders will possess personal passion, trust and hope.

Commitment to excellence is an individual passion but it becomes a collective, organizational passion as two, then three, then ALL embrace from their heart and soul the same standard. Sustaining excellence is much easier when it is the product of a group’s effort. Like the three-fold cord that is not soon broken, the group sustains the one’s commitment to excellence at times of fatigue and discouragement. The physics of the three-fold cord is that at the point of one cord’s weakness another is strong, and the reciprocal is also true. A cord that can only support 200 pounds, when intertwined with two equally strong cords, the three can sustain 2,000 pounds. So it is with our effort and commitment of excellence. What we cannot do alone, we can do together.

Future of healthcare is transformation

To be successful, the implantation of new polices and initiatives must be transformative because being from within, transformation results in change that is not simply reflected in shape, structure, dimension or appearance, but transformation results in a change that is part of the nature of the organization being transformed. The process itself creates a dynamic that is generative, i.e., it not only changes that which is being transformed but it creates within the object of transformation the energy, the will and the necessity of continued and constant change and improvement. Transformation is not dependent upon external pressure but is sustained by an internal drive that is energized by the evolving nature of the organization.

While this might initially appear to be excessively abstract, it really begins to address the methods or tools needed for reformation, or for transformation. They are significantly different. The tools of reformation, particularly in healthcare administration, are rules, regulations and restrictions. Reformation is focused upon establishing limits and boundaries rather than realizing possibilities. There is nothing generative – creative – about reformation. In fact, reformation has a “lethal gene” within its structure. That gene is the natural order of an organization, industry or system’s ability and will to resist, circumvent and overcome the tools of reformation, requiring new tools, new rules, new regulations and new restrictions. This becomes a vicious cycle. While the nature of the system actually does change, where the goal was reformation, it is most often a dysfunctional change that does not produce the desired results and often makes things worse.

The tools of transformation might actually begin with the same ideals and goals as reformation, but now rather than attempting to impose the changes necessary to achieve those ideals and goals, a transformative process initiates behavioral changes that become self-sustaining not because of rules, regulations and restrictions but because the images of the desired changes are internalized by the organization, which then finds creative and novel ways of achieving those changes.

It is possible for an organization to meet rules, regulations and restrictions perfunctorily without ever experiencing the transformative power that was hoped for by those who fashioned the external pressure for change. In terms of healthcare administration, policy makers can begin reforms by restricting reimbursement for units of work, i.e., they can pay less for office visits or for procedures. While this would hopefully decrease the total cost of care, it would only do so per unit. As more people are added to the public guaranteed healthcare system, the increase in units of care will quickly outstrip any savings from the reduction of the cost of each unit.

Transformation of healthcare would result in a radical change in relationship between patient and provider. The patient would no longer be a passive recipient of care that’s given by the healthcare system. The patient and provider would become an active team where the provider would cease to be a constable attempting to impose health upon an unwilling or unwitting patient. The collaboration between the patient and the provider would be based on the rational accessing of care. There would no longer be a CAT scan done every time the patient has a headache. There would be a history and physical examination and an appropriate accessing of imaging studies based on need and not desire.

This transformation will require a great deal more communication between patient and provider which would not only take place face-to-face, but by electronic or written means. There was a time when healthcare providers looked askance at patients who wrote down their symptoms. The medical literature called this la maladie du petit papier or “the malady of the small piece of paper.” Patients who came to the office with their symptoms written on a small piece of paper where thought to be neurotic.

No longer is that the case. Providers can read faster than a patient can talk, and a well thought out description of symptoms and history is an extremely valuable starting point for accurately recording a patient’s history. Many practices with electronic patient records are making it possible for a patient to record their chief complaint, history of present illness and review of systems before they arrive for an office visit. This increases both the efficiency and the excellence of the medical record and it part of a transformation process in healthcare delivery.

This transformation will require patients becoming much more knowledgeable about their condition than ever before. It will be the fulfillment of Dr. Joslin’s dictum, “The person with diabetes who knows the most will live the longest.” It will require educational tools being made available to the patient in order for patients to do self-study. Patients are already undertaking this responsibility as the most common use of the Internet is the looking up of health information. It will require a transformative change by providers who will welcome input by the patient to their care rather seeing such input as obstructive.

This transformation will require the patient and the provider to rethink their common prejudice that technology – tests, procedures, and studies - are superior methods of maintaining health and avoiding illness than communication, vigilance and “watchful waiting.” Both provider and patient must be committed to evidence-based medicine, which has a proven scientific basis for medical-decision making. This transformation will require a community of patients and providers who are committed to science. This will eliminate “provider shopping” by patients who did not get what they want from one provider so they go to another.

This transformation will require the reestablishment of the trust that once existed between provider and patient to be regained. That cannot be done by fiat. It can only be done by the transformation of healthcare in to system that we had 50 to 75 years ago. The patient must be absolutely confident that they are the center of care but also they must know that they are principally responsible for their own health. The provider must be an extension of the family. This is the ultimate genius behind the concept of Medical Home and it cannot be achieved by regulations, restrictions and rules.

The transformation will require patient and provider to lose their fear of death and surrender their unspoken idea that death is the ultimate failure of healthcare. Death is a part of life and, in that it cannot forever be postponed, it must not be seen as the ultimate negative outcome of healthcare delivery. While the foundation of healthcare is that we will do no harm, recognizing the limitations of our abilities and the inevitability of death can lead us to more rational end-of-life healthcare choices.


There is hope for the future of medicine. I anticipate the program next week. It is my hope that leaders will arise, at the local level, in the private practice of medicine, who will embrace the Paradoxical Commandments and Personal Master. And that those leaders will internalize the hopes and expectations of the transformative ideals of healthcare policy.