We can do better, and better

Better-Atul_GI recently read an excellent book by the surgeon, Atul Gawande, entitled Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance (Picador 2007). It tells of the many lessons he learned about what makes some people and organizations just better—by breaking out of the mold of convention, pushing forward against sometimes mind-boggling odds and constantly questioning why we do the things we do.

At the end of the book, Dr. Gawande has a list of things he has encouraged young doctors to do to become “positive deviants.” By this he means the things that we can do to make a difference in the world by simply making small changes in our own behavior. These include finding meaningful things to count and track, potentially understanding patterns that have been traditionally unclear and not complaining, but rather, changing the course of a conversation by focusing on the positive and productive.

While I really enjoyed the book, in fact, I found it hard to put down; it was the final pages that I found most applicable to my life and work. I developed my own list of 5 things that I believe we need to do, as advisors, coaches and consultants, to become “positive deviants.” I think that these are important because I really believe this is what pushes us to be BETTER.

  1. Tell stories. Change the names, shift the location, but start telling the real stories of family business. It is rarely pretty work. It is often messy, sad, confusing, frustrating and endless! We need to dispel the myths surrounding succession and transition – there are rarely perfect solutions. However, as we tell our stories, we break down the fears and barriers to entering into this important phase of life planning, normalizing what is occurring and making it ok to try…and try again.
  2. Dig. Don’t take what you see or hear from a client, or anyone else at face value. Instead, gently dig deeper and listen harder. We all paint ourselves as we wish others to see us. That means that the stories we tell are developed to support the vision we have of our best selves. By respectfully asking more questions and gaining permission to talk to others, we begin to develop a clearer picture of reality. To work with others to solve problems, we need to have this broader, three dimensional perspective, rather than the flat two-dimensional narrative that is usually presented.
  3. Take a risk, speak your mind. Sometimes your clients won’t like you or what you have to say. Sometimes you won’t like them. However, this is the reality of the work that we do and every day that we connect with families and ask tough questions or share new information, we are creating opportunities for change. This doesn’t mean that we have to be disrespectful or even unkind – but it does mean that we need to be honest. I work hard to find ways to talk to others, so that they don’t need to defend themselves, yet I can still hold up the mirror and let them see a different picture of reality.
  4. Get real. All too often professionals feel that they have to present their most perfect self when they work with their clients. In reality, sharing your imperfect journey with humility and honesty will bring you closer to your client, building trust and understanding.
  5. Share. This is a complex field, with no easy solutions and no perfect path. We are all learning together, consultants and clients alike. We must share our experiences, through writing, talking, gathering together to tell stories, compare notes, play with concepts and learn new methodologies. If we are going to truly change the world and collectively crack open this important conversation, then our voices must be heard. Share your success stories and case studies, warts and all. Find as many avenues as possible to bring your knowledge and experience to the rest of us, so that we can all get better together.


  1. says

    Lise – very incisive! Great summary. Now I want to read his book. This combined with striving to learn something new each day, presents a formidable recipe for success. When are you coming to Kansas City?
    Frederick, ex-Rochester

    • says

      Frederick – thanks for taking the time to read and comment! I would love to come to KC – still trying to get it organized – the need is great, so much to do! With your publishing skills – help us to spread the word!
      Cheers, Lisë

    • says

      Mary – I highly recommend the book – plus one of his others, The Checklist Manifesto – loved it. I realize that so much of this is common sense, but it is great to be reminded and given the opportunity to reflect on our own life and how we live it. I look forward to learning about your new adventures!

  2. says


    Thank you for sharing thought-provoking ideas and challenging us to be more open. I just finished reading Donald Miller’s new book Scary Close.

    I particularly enjoyed and benefited from chapter 3 “Everybody’s Got a Story and It’s not the One They’re Telling”. It supports your advice to us. In it Donald shares one of his experiences at a personal improvement center.

    His instructor drew three concentric circles. The inner circle is our True Self. Because we are often ashamed of who we are, the next circle is Shame, hiding our true self to others. The outer circle is the False Self we create to hide our shame and true self.

    For me to be the best I can be for my clients, I must reveal my True Self to my client and discover the True Self of my client. Your blog just confirmed that for me. It’s easy to say but difficult to do because it’s not instinctive.

    • says

      Tom – you are a great source of information – like a walking Library! :-) I am going to have to get that book and add it to my reading list – love the language, “My True Self”.
      Have you heard about our advanced coaching training happening in Cleveland in September? You’d be a terrific candidate for this – and a great addition to the class.

      Thanks again, Lise

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