What I Learned About Leadership from a Root Canal

Okay, I know. It’s a stretch. But one of the benefits of being a blogger is that you can redeem almost any situation by writing about it. Every experience becomes fodder for a post.

The View from the Dental Chair - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/fstop123, Image #15690690

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/fstop123

Last week, during a routine visit to my dentist, she discovered that I had some decay under an existing filling. Because it was close to the root, she insisted that I come in right away, which I did yesterday.

After removing the old filling and doing a little drilling, she suddenly stopped. She took off her protective mask and said, “I‘m afraid you need a root canal.”

The color drained from my face. I had never had a root canal, but I had heard the horror stories. In my mind, I envisioned being strapped into a chair while a sadistic dentist with a drill—a weapon!—inflicted unspeakable pain.

Worse, she said I needed an emergency root canal and would see if she could get me into a nearby endodontist. (I had never even heard that word before she uttered it. It means “inside the tooth.”) Fortunately, he could see me immediately.

Reluctantly, I drove the ten minutes to the office of Dr. Daniel Price. I dreaded the trauma I was about to experience.

Amazingly, I was in his office less than an hour. He performed the procedure, and I walked out shocked at what a non-event the entire experience was.

In addition to Dr. Price’s obvious dental acumen, I believe it was also due to his leadership ability. In particular, he exhibited six leadership skills, which are transferable to any leadership situation.

  1. He demonstrated empathy. From the moment I met him, Dr. Price communicated that it was okay to be anxious about this procedure. He was a great listener and touched my arm several times as he responded to me. I felt understood and safe.
  2. He clarified expectations. He explained that the old school procedure took three visits and six hours. It was very intrusive. He provided an overview of the latest technology and told me exactly what he was going to do and what I could expect. This built trust and helped me relax further.
  3. He under-promised. He told me that his goal was a “pain free experience.” As he administered the Novocain, he said, “You’re going to feel a little pressure” or “You might feel a little pinch.” I really liked these euphemisms for pain. They worked. As I have often said, the words we use often impact how we experience reality. I didn’t feel anything.
  4. He provided updates. All through the procedure, Dr. Price explained exactly what he was doing. I don’t like being out of the loop. It makes me even more nervous. However, his running commentary kept me relaxed. I was also fascinated by the whole procedure.
  5. He over delivered. He had initially told me the procedure would take about an hour or so. It took less than an hour. He said his goal was for the procedure was to make it as pain-free as possible, but he didn’t promise that. Regardless, it was pain-free. I experienced zero pain.
  6. He made himself available. Finally, after the procedure, he prescribed some pain medications, told me what I could expect next, and invited me to call if I encountered any complications. I felt like he genuinely cared about my whole experience.

As I was about to leave, he asked, “So how was it? Did we do okay?” I said, “Doc, I have experienced more pain from a haircut.” We both chuckled. “Seriously,” I continued, “this was a complete non-event. I couldn’t be happier.”

Question: How can these leadership principles enable you to walk someone else through a potentially scary experience? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Ned

    For my first root canal, the dentist had a mirror on his lamp so I could watch the whole procedure. That really helped to eliminate the “not sure what’s coming next” fear and the “what is he really doing” question. For my next 6 root canals, I didn’t had any of the other dentists do that so I guess it isn’t very common.

  • http://www.charlesspecht.com Charles Specht

    Leadership comes in many shapes and sizes.  And some of those sizes carry dental drills!

    It’s a good reminder that Leadership comes into play in many areas of life…particularly ones we don’t even think about often.  

    • http://brandonweldy.wordpress.com Brandon Weldy

      I know this reminder is helping me to be looking for Leadership everywhere!

  • http://www.nginaotiende.blogspot.com Ngina Otiende

    Wow, amazing insights here Michael. 

    I have had the “(non) pleasure” going through a  root canal…not just once but twice in the last one year. And using the old technology of 4 to 5 visits.

    Reading through your list, the one that strikes me the most (all resonate) is the one where the doctor provided updates. If my doctor had done that, i would not have lain on that seat for two hours, doing jigs of fear in my head, feeling extreme pain (well, the kind that shows up immediately the drill or long needles show up on the periphery..its more psychological than real:)

    When applied to my leadership style, its really something that i can definitely improve upon. I am the kind that can ‘conveniently’ forget to keep others in the loop. So long as I have the route and destination mapped out, I find that I expect others to just trust me. That has gotten me in trouble before  and its something that i have become aware of and am working on it.

    Keeping other team members updated and in the loop fosters confidence, productivity, trust. 

    Thank you for sharing Michael

  • http://tcavey.blogspot.com/ TCAvey

    I used to be an Emergency Room RN and have found that having these qualities helps not only the patients deal with the stress of a visit to the ER but also their loved ones.  It is always sad to see nurses/doctors/medical staff too busy to   provide these common curtsies that go a long way in building  a trusting relationship.  Many think it takes too much time, but I have found that it pays off in the long run. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Clevenger/714457904 Michael Clevenger

    Enjoy reading your blog. Your post title caught my eye as I had a similar experience recently. Here’s what I wrote about it. http://www.masonicleader.com/no-thanks-i%e2%80%99d-rather-have-a-root-canal/

    Mike Clevenger

  • http://www.15minutewriter.com Sharon Gibson

    First of all, thanks for being honest about your fears. We all have them. 
    Second, I wish he would write something to teach other health professionals these principles. Third,  as a writer, I can identify with your drawing on life experiences for blogging. It keeps them fresh and relevant and fun to write. 
    Fourth, this makes me think how I can be even more reassuring to my students when I teach them how to write. I remember how intimidating it used to be for me in the beginning. 
    I love your creative application to  good leadership qualities. I’m going to keep this where I can review it and continue to be inspired by it.
    Keep up the good writing!

  • http://bentheredothat.com Ben Patterson

    Clarity is huge. Being clear of expectations all the way around helps ease nerves, fears, and invites conversation.

  • http://twitter.com/Avito_BZE  Avito Zaldivar 

    I would never have thought of using a root canal experience to write about leadership, but you did and you did so very well.  I particularly liked the points about clarifying expectations and providing updates.  I’ve learned that I am very satisfied when someone tells me what to expect and then keeps me up to date with what’s going on.  As a result, these are principles that I work hard at applying in my own life and leadership.  While I believe that the other four skills you discussed are important, I would like to think that his clarifying expectations and providing updates, the doc was able to put your mind at ease when it came to a root canal – an experience that is often described as being dreadful indeed.  Thanks for sharing.

    • http://joeandancy.com/ Joe Abraham

      I agree with you, Avito! Clarifying expectations and providing updates are essential for creating productive outcomes.

  • http://jonstolpe.wordpress.com Jon Stolpe

    That’s a good question.

    In my business, I have the opportunity to hand out project assignments to my team.  Because of my experience in the business, I generally have some ideas about what to expect with many of these projects.  Your tips are certainly a good model to follow as I lead my team members to proceed through the projects that can definitely be challenging.

  • http://www.tnealtarver.wordpress.com TNeal

    Richard Burkey wrote a similar lesson on leadership learned from a more desirable experience in “Everything I Need To Know about Leadership I Learned on a Disney Cruise” (http://richardburkey.wordpress.com/2011/11/02/everything-i-need-to-know-about-leadership-i-learned-on-a-disney-cruise/). Your post and Richard’s teach us that we can learn anywhere any time. It just takes “eyes to see” and “ears to hear.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/MelissaMashburnMelsWorld Melissa Scarbrough Mashburn

    So glad to hear your experience was nothing like you had expected, especially when the expectation was that it was going to be a scary experience.

    I love this post because immediately as I was reading through the leadership principles I thought this is absolutely something I could apply in my world. I’m in ministry at my church and I can see that this is something I can apply two fold…1) for my volunteers, particularly new volunteers, they are a little nervous and have no idea what to expect, remembering that they are putting themselves out there to serve at the church and walking through these steps will help them as they seek out a new thing, and 2) for people that walk into the doors of our church. It is a potentially scary experience, especially if they have never been to church before. Being aware of ways to connect and encourage while making them feel welcomed, listened to, and available.

    Good stuff! Thanks Michael!
    ~ Melissa

  • http://deanaohara.com/ Deana O’Hara

    Isn’t it interesting Mr Hyatt how we can blow things up in our minds? Fear of the unknown does that. Even worse are the fears perpetuated by those who’ve been there with stories to tell. I’m learning in this walk of life that not all stories are worth listening to. Or rather it would be better to say that not all stories (especially horror stories) are meant to be personally ingested. Someone else’s experience doesn’t have to be mine. Even if the only difference in the experience is how I choose to perceive it, I still have choices. 

    I’ve had two root canals in my life and had a doctor very similar to yours. I’m glad you had a good experience. I also like how you turned this around and found a great leadership story out of your experience. 

    Excellent points to remember not only as a leader, but just as individuals.

  • http://www.jeffrandleman.com Jeff Randleman

    Oh, how I hate dental work…

  • http://careerology.co.nz Jonathan Moy

    I agree the best Dentists are those who can manage patient’s anxieties about the procedure the best.  Expectations strongly influence our perception of hardship… and pain! 

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  • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

    Really, dental work intimidates me. I fear it.

  • James Randorff

    Holy cow! This works for leadership, interaction with leaders, and sales. This was a great way to relate a typically unpleasant experience. Thanks for posting this, Michael!

  • http://www.irunurun.com/blog/ Travis Dommert

    What a great, unexpectedly enjoyable post about a traumatic topic.  I’ve had 3 root canals with two different docs…two as a result of trauma, one after discovery of a cracked tooth.  

    The first doc asked mid-procedure, “Want to take a look?” I said “sure” (which probably came out “augh-uhgh”)…and suddenly saw in a mirror that my teeth had been sawed almost completely off.  He then showed me the remnants of the nerve on a little barbed wire.

    I will never forget thinking “Dear God, what has he done?!”  I was mortified, as he didn’t tell me that in addition to the root canals, he’d be sawing the teeth down and replacing them with a bridge (or if he did, I didn’t know what that meant).  He found my reaction comical.It wasn’t terribly painful, but I distinctly remember thinking “This guy is a jerk”.  Similar (albeit antithetical) leadership lesson there!

  • http://www.leadershipconnexion.com Stephan De Villiers

    I think the six leadership skills your doctor exhibited are all the fruit of understanding one of the most important Leadership principles, that Leaders deal with people.  As a leader you have to manege the emotional expectation of the people you lead.  Your doctor made you feel safe by demonstrating empathy, letting you know what to expect and managed that expectation to such an extent that you never felt let down.
    Six very valuable skills to acquire as a leader indeed!

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  • Angelambryant

    My retired endodontist husband says “Amen. Job well done!”

    • http://michaelhyatt.com Michael Hyatt

      Ha! I was amazed at mine.

  • http://twitter.com/nocnocintn Viky Fisher

    Great lessons!  I’ve been to Dr. Price myself (without pain) and really appreciated how you broke down the “essence” of great caregiving.


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  • Diana

    Excellent post, and a great example for anyone who would interact with people!
    I’m glad for you that your root canal went so well.  I had one of those horror stories…yet I still trust and respect my dentist without question.  I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say that as the pain subsided on day 3 after the procedure, I was telling folks that there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and it wasn’t the train I had been praying for!

  • Gbenga

    I don’t think I really understand the question but what I could understand from the blog is that COMMUNICATION and SINCERITY/HONESTY is very key in leadership. Because Dr. Price communicated the procedure to you and also throughout the process and also his sincerity gave you some confidence to trust in his competence.

    Gbenga, Lagos

  • Dale L

    I loved this information. We have started Nevada’s only non profit dental clinic. I am a “greeter’ and “prayer partner”. My job is to help people not be so afraid. We have only been open 3 Saturday’s so I will continue to try to put our patients at ease. Dale L.

  • Tarun Agarwal

    as a dentist i can say that modern root canals are totally different from past root canals. changes in techniques combined with modern numbing solutions make all the difference.

    these are great lessons that can be applied to service industries and life in general.

  • Howard Farran

    you Michael for this outstanding blog. As a dentist who has done root canals
    for over 25 years I found your blog to be spot on and amazing. I am sharing this
    blog with every dentist I know. Howard Farran DDS, MBA

    • http://michaelhyatt.com/ Michael Hyatt

      Thanks, Howard. I appreciate that!