The show-stopping line from the Hans Christian Anderson’s 1837 fairytale is actually, “But he has nothing on!”
A brave, young, clear thinking boy in the crowd is the only person confident enough to say what he thinks and speak up. Perhaps even more simply, the young voice in the crowd has not had the life experience that often builds (and rewards) the filters of loyalty, flattery and only saying and thinking what we think others want to hear.
The story resonates so much that it has been re-told and re-written in as many different languages as cultures. In Denmark it was The Emperor’s New Clothes, in Sri Lanka it was crafted into The Invisible Silk Robe, in Turkey the story is told as The King’s New Turban, in India, as The King and the Clever Girl and in my homeland, England, we grew up with The Miller and The Golden Thumb.
The languages, settings and details differ; the moral remains the same and is well known, that we shouldn’t believe everything we’re told, especially if the evidence doesn’t support the claim.
Some will tell us that an additional lesson was about making a fool and mockery of the Emperor, but, in fact, he clearly does that to himself. He was a fool for not believing what he knew to be true, which can lead us to conclude that he took his position as Emperor for granted, especially in his belief that as Emperor no one would ever lie to him.
The analogies to our hospitals, departments and clinics are clear and prompt some important questions:
- Have we created an environment that promotes or inhibits speaking up?
- Have we become so confident and conceited due to our names and rank that we sometimes don’t acknowledge what we know is true?
- Are we ignoring what the data is telling us for fear of embarrassment?
- Are we doing something just because it’s the way the “crowd” does it, or the way we have always done it?
- Are we willing, as leaders, to take the risks required to speak up and act differently? (to be that little voice in the crowd)
- What are the risks associated with speaking and acting differently?
By any report, our hospitals, healthcare systems and practices are still unsafe and not as patient and family centered as they could be. As leaders of these organizations we must be willing to take, and reward, the risks associated with speaking up, with acting differently, with finding alternate solutions.
The risk of not doing this is too great – it’s more of the same.
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