The greatest good for the greatest number

In my career, I've had many roles. I've been a consensus builder and a disruptive innovator. But no matter what I've done in academia, industry or government, I've been guided by a few basic leadership principles:

  • The Boston Globe Test (customize to the locale of your choice) -- If your actions were published as a front-page article, would they seem fair and reasonable to the average reader?
  • The Sister Mary Noel Test (named for my second-grade teacher at St. James Catholic School) -- If you had to explain your actions to Sister Noel, would you pass her sense of right and wrong or be rapped on the knuckles with a ruler?
  • The Sunday Night Phone Call with Parents Test -- When you describe your week to your mom, will your actions seem noble?
  • The Senate Testimony Test -- When describing your actions to a Senate panel, is there any reason to say, "I have no recollection of those events, senator."
  • The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number Test -- Will your actions have a lasting impact on your organization, your state or your country without direct personal benefit? Although it's true that actions on behalf of others can indirectly bring notoriety to you, fame is not the primary motivation for what you do.

Unfortunately, in our modern society, many people I encounter seem primarily interested in their fame, their fortune and their reputation. This causes people to be edgy, angry and impatient. I encounter a sense of frenzy when I board airplanes, when I search for parking and when I commute on busy highways.

It's time to dust ourselves off, make the most of each day, and strive for more good karma.

What do I mean?

Conflict happens every day. I have always believed that the nice guy can finish first in any conflict by doing the right thing.

  1. By trying to win every competition, you may win the battle of office politics but lose the karma war. I've found that those who are Machiavellian live by the sword and eventually die by it. Thus, do not grandstand, take credit inappropriately or demean others to enhance your own stature.
  2. Rather than worrying about fame, fortune or glory, just try to make a difference. Treat everyone with respect, listen to their concerns and make decisions based on the greatest good for the greatest number.
  3. Use e-mail as a communication tool, not a weapon. If you feel emotion, save as draft and send it later. Never resort to blind cc's or use e-mail to make others look bad to their superiors.
  4. At the end of every day, look back on each open issue and ask if you've moved the issue forward. Many conflicts are not easily resolvable, but can be moved forward over time via gradual change and aligning the interests of stakeholders.
  5. Stick to your principles. Integrity, honesty and consistency should guide your actions.

If everyone looked at the balance in their karma account at the end of every week, the world would be a much more positive place.

Yesterday in a meeting, someone asked how I was doing. My answer what that my 401(k) may be bad, but my karma account is looking good. I have my health, a happy marriage, a loving daughter and a set of really interesting challenges that enable me to make a difference.

We're only on this planet for 80 years. We cannot take anything with us. Happiness should be measured by making a difference during our short tenure. We should evaluate our actions through the lens of the greatest good for the greatest number in our communities, states and country. We need to move past special interest thinking, including our own.

If we guide our behavior each day based on choices that look good to The Boston Globe, Sister Noel, our moms, public scrutiny and our fellow humans, the world will be a better place.

John D. Halamka is CIO at CareGroup Healthcare System, CIO and associate dean for educational technology at Harvard Medical School, chairman of the New England Health Electronic Data Interchange Network, chairman of the national Healthcare Information Technology Standards Panel and a practicing emergency physician. You can contact him at


Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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