Expecting the Unexpected
September 20, 2019
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UnexpectedThis week took an unexpected turn. A mid-week scheduled oral surgery consult turned into an immediate impacted wisdom tooth extraction – and so much more. Yes, there are a few leadership lessons to be garnered from this event.

First, some context. A recent routine visit to my family dentist prompted the initial surgery consultation. Previous x-rays had confirmed that all four of my wisdom teeth are impacted, but now one of them was showing signs of inflammation and the potential for infection. I expected my appointment with the surgeon to focus on treatment options, not a suggestion for immediate extraction!

The dentist was calm and matter-of-fact in his diagnosis and recommendation. A discharge was oozing from the area and the procedure to remove the impacted tooth was a simple 10-15-minute procedure performed under a local anesthesia (numbing the area). Although this was unexpected news, I agreed with his assessment and within minutes was being prepped. What happened next was unexpected too.

With the right side of my jaw, face, and gums numbed, the surgeon began the extraction. The expected noise of suction, drilling, and scrapping was still disconcerting. Cutting through the jawbone is the only way to reach the tooth roots and carving it into pieces eases removal. Makes sense if everything proceeds normally.

Within a few minutes the nerves in my jaw and mouth came to life. The surgeon had been judiciously asking how I was feeling at every turn, perhaps sensing this operation was about to get more challenging. He was expecting the unexpected. I was not.

Additional Novocain was applied and we continued. Unfortunately, the tooth roots were dangerously close to the main nerve in my lower jaw and the discomfort soon returned. To keep this story brief, 45 minutes later the tooth was safely removed and the area cleared enough for sutures. I was given an IV medicine to reduce swelling and a painkiller to make me comfortable as the anesthesia wore off.

“It is strange how new and unexpected conditions bring out unguessed ability to meet them.” ― Edgar Rice Burrough

What did I learn about leadership from this unexpected event? My surgeon deserves the credit for these.

  • When the unexpected occurs, remain calm. With each new challenge I was impressed with how prepared my surgeon was to deal with it. He did not like the fact that he couldn’t make me more comfortable, but I felt reassured by his attentiveness to my pain. His demeanor never wavered – he was confident and focused in the face of adversity.
  • Expect things to be hard. In spite of his earlier predictions of a simple procedure, he was ready when the going got tough. He had his staff prepared to offer encouragement and expertly support his ever-changing tactics. I could tell he had been though challenging operations before and benefitted from the wisdom learned through them.
  • Take pride in your expertise. After the surgery, my dentist carefully explained what he had done and how good he felt about the outcome. He was proud of his tactical prowess but disappointed that he could not have predicted the unexpected obstacles. The x-rays couldn’t reveal how the tooth had fused to the jawbone, creating a greater risk for pain and other complications.

As a small business owner and experienced facilitator, these lessons are also applicable to my work. I must always be prepared for the unexpected to happen in the classroom or during a coaching or teambuilding session. My work is not easy and I must be willing to try new tactics when challenges occur. Like my surgeon, I am proud of the insights I have to offer my clients but humble enough to know that I will sometimes disappoint.

I have chosen to keep the dentist and his practice anonymous. It’s not because he isn’t deserving of a testimonial. If you have a challenging dental situation, ask me privately for a referral.

Instead, I’m hoping my story will challenge leaders to handle unforeseen circumstances with grace by practicing these lessons I observed. Perhaps expecting the unexpected can someday be considered the leadership norm.

Photo Credit: istockphoto.com

Ken Byler

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