Who(m) Do You Trust?

When I wrote The Trusted Advisor with David Maister and Rob Galford, we each contributed examples. One of Galford’s surprised me. As we told it in the book:

One of Rob’s children was diagnosed as having a serious medical condition when she was barely three years old. Given the complexity and potential severity of the situation, she was referred to a highly specialized surgeon at Children’s Hospital in Boston who was sufficiently famous to have been the subject of a book, written about him and his work, complete with photographs of his hands. From the standpoint of credibility and reliability, few people in the world could match him. But his intimacy skills were not among the highest, to be sure.

This was pointedly obvious when, at the end of six hours of surgery on Rob’s daughter, the surgeon emerged from the operating room saying to the anxious parents, “Don’t worry. He’s fine.” Rob and his wife, Susan, almost shouted in unison, “She’s a she!” He shrugged and casually said, “Oh, yeah, I meant to say ‘she.’ Anyway, she’ll be fine. Complex surgery. Interesting case. We videotaped it.” With that, he strolled away, leaving two grateful yet dumbfounded parents in his wake.

As I recall, Rob and Susan had chosen this physician knowing full well his deficit of bedside manner. Rob offered this example initially (again, as I recall) as an example of how when it comes to life-threatening situations, we default to technical excellence and credibility.

I recall thinking that, if anything, such life and death situations make us more willing to trust those who seem to care about us and listen to us than to those who lead with brute competence.

It sparked a good discussion between the three of us, and the language we ended up with in the book said

“Did this surgeon “get away with it?” Yes. Can you get by only on technical excellence? Yes, you can, barely, if you’re world-famous. The rest of us cannot.

Fast forward. My sister has been fighting a virulent form of cancer for a decade or so. When it came back recently after a long remission, she went to her prior clinic. The clinic has a renowned oncologist on staff.

The physician recommended an aggressive program of treatment. My sister is an RN, with a record that includes work in midwifery and hospice; she’s seen them coming and going, as she says. And so she asked some questions about the possibility of delaying treatment a few weeks to spend a Thanksgiving with relatives and her new husband and family.

“Are you serious about surviving or not?” was his basic response. “I’m telling what you’ve got to do; you asked my advice, I told you. You need to start treatment now—tomorrow, not two weeks from now. Don’t waste my time if you’re not serious, other people need me.”

She sought out another doctor, also well-respected. He gave her a completely different line of treatment. He also talked to her like an equal—on his own time, over lunch, with respect for her decision.

She went with him. 3 months later, she’s out of the wheelchair and seems nearly symptom free again.

The point is not who was right and who wrong; she’d be the first to say there are no guarantees with cancer.

The question is: when it comes down to something like that—life and death—who do you trust? Do you go with the credentialized expert? Or the one who cares?
I suspect Rob would make the same decision again. I suspect my sister would make hers again as well.

How about you? Who(m) would you trust?