Five Leadership Lessons from an Unexpected Place

I had the good fortune to wind up in an endodontist’s chair for a root canal retreatment. Yes, you read that right – the good fortune. I wouldn’t have chosen this path, of course, but in addition to addressing a dental issue, I saw true leadership in action that reminds me of the leader I want to be. Here are few of the lessons I observed from this unexpected place.

Transparency builds trust

From the moment I walked in the door, I was encouraged to ask questions. If you know me, you won’t be surprised that I had a LOT of them. The endodontist (I’ll call her “Doc” for ease of reference) walked me through every step she anticipated doing that day. This included describing the advanced digital imaging she needed to slice and dice the image from multiple angles and that this imaging would likely not be covered by insurance. I don’t think I’ve ever had a health care professional proactively mention insurance. It wasn’t good news, but her just putting it out there and being honest and explaining the necessity made me trust her more.

Once we were looking at those images, Doc described in detail what she saw and what the options were:

  1. Retreatment, which has less chance of a success than the original root canal, but it’s better than losing the tooth
  2. Doing nothing and hoping it wouldn’t get worse and/or that the tooth wasn’t cracked (in which case it’s all over for the tooth)
  3. Proactively extract the tooth

Again, not exactly a pleasant menu, but it empowered me to make the decision to have the retreatment and, by the time I left, I knew exactly what I was in for and what to expect over the next two visits.

When we’re honest and transparent with others, it creates vulnerability. For example, they may not like what we have to say or we may worry that they see us as less in control. But vulnerability is the building block of trust and creates an environment where others can be vulnerable, perpetuating a cycle of repeated increases in trust.

Trust decreases anxiety

When I showed up for the first of two treatment appointments, there was yet more transparency about what I could expect that day, which Doc had set the stage for in the first visit. There was really nothing for me to do now, but I trusted her completely. When I asked if she’d mind if I put in my ear buds and listened to an audiobook, she said she thought that was a terrific idea and she’d just tap me if she needed me to do anything. I settled in and just relaxed. Relaxed to the point that my Oura ring sleep/fitness tracker recognized my inactivity and lowered heart rate as napping!

When we have built up a level of trust by repeatedly acting with honesty and integrity, it allows for more free flow of information, both good and bad, which decreases anxiety and frees up teams to work productively rather than defensively.

Respect creates safety to generate ideas

I didn’t have the volume on the earbuds very high because I still wanted to be aware of what was going on around me. I was delighted by what I heard. The typical requests by Doc for tools or materials was almost always accompanied by “please” and “thank you.” Not just good manners, but displaying gratitude and respect for the other colleagues, unlike what I have seen with some doctors and other leaders who seem to think their degree or title puts them on a higher plane.  It was so clear that the team members truly enjoyed working together. I also noticed that in this collegial environment, the other colleagues felt free to offer things proactively. “Would you like the [some dental thing] now?” To which Doc would reply either, “Yes, thank you” or perhaps, “Not just yet, thank you.” And in one instance, the assistant apologized for offering the wrong number or size of something (again, I know zero about the tools they were using), to which Doc simply replied, “It’s quite alright. Save ‘sorry’ for the important things.” It was just so nice to see the level of respect, teaming, and collaboration.

Thank you is one of the most underused words in business. Leaders realize that the simple gesture of recognizing the contribution and effort of someone goes a long way because it makes the recipient feel seen and that she matters. Developing a perspective of gratitude and appreciate increases a sense of belonging as well and leads to increased generation of ideas.

Laughter is medicine for everyone

There was also laughter.  Not a conversation going on where they were talking about a funny topic, just the sounds of people who enjoy working together and can chuckle about whatever goes on in endodontic practice. Because when you’re sitting vulnerable in a chair with your mouth propped wide open by a weird sort of chew toy with the little suction thing dangling out, it’s laughter and polite banter that you want to hear, not stern words, tension, or anything that might sound like things aren’t going quite right.

Laughter driven from shared experiences creates more bonding and camaraderie among the team. Leaders can appropriately (laughing together rather than at someone) add levity to both improve the atmosphere around a team as it releases endorphins into our bodies and allows us to focus on our tasks with renewed energy.

Humility and teaming go hand in hand

I have never had a dentist or other doctor take an X-ray of me. Order one, yes. Do it? Are you kidding? Doc did it twice.  The assistant did the initial X-ray so that we had a starting point, but there was another X-ray to make sure everything looked as expected and desired before everything was closed off/tidied up. Doc grabbed the leaded apron, placed it on me, placed the thing in my mouth and positioned the camera and made the image – because, I assume, it was just convenient to do so since she happened to be right there. I was shocked the first time and just charmed the second time.

True leaders don’t think any job is beneath them and pitch in whenever they can. They show respect for the contributions of others when they do so and gain even more respect from others at the same time.

I was listening to an audiobook during the retreatment visits, but I learned even more from watching the example set by Doc. While I’d prefer to avoid dental trauma of any kind, I’ll miss the opportunity to soak up leadership lessons from her. And if you live in/near New Jersey and need an amazing endodontist, I’ve got just the right one for you!