By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

There are two exceptionally high stakes sectors in life: aviation and medical care. When people mess up in these sectors, other people often die.

That’s why it’s good to learn as much from them whenever we can.

Here’s one opportunity.

Some years ago a study was conducted to determine the reasons for unexpected deaths in the operating rooms of some of America’s most prestigious hospitals on the Eastern Seaboard. Among the study’s findings were two stark realities:

  • In a third of the cases, a member of the surgical team saw a critical issue and brought it to the attention of the chief surgeon – only to be criticized and shut down for their warning.
  • In another third of the cases, a member of the surgical team saw a critical issue but kept their mouth shut because they were sure they would have been criticized and ignored.

Wow! Imagine that. In fully two-thirds of the cases where someone died, their deaths could have been easily prevented. (The last third of cases were explained by a variety of other factors.)

Clearly responsible

You could say that in the first third of the cases the chief surgeon was clearly responsible. He or she should have listened and didn’t. Chalk those deaths up to positional arrogance.

You could also say that in the second third of the cases cited – the ones where someone saw a problem and didn’t speak up – that person was responsible. And to some extent you would be right. But clearly there is more to the story.

Skilled, responsible health care professionals didn’t keep their mouths shut because they were indifferent. On the contrary, they felt helpless to accomplish anything because they were convinced – based on personal experience and reputation – that the only thing that would happen was that they would be chastised.

They were convinced that there was nothing they could do for the patient because they were convinced that the head surgeon wouldn’t listen to them anyway.

Two quick lessons:

  • First, we all have histories.
  • And second, word about us gets around pretty quickly, especially when we have positional power.

Wider application

The lessons this study uncovered about power and relationships have a much wider application than just medicine. They’re applicable to each and every relationship in which there is some sort of imbalance of power.

They can enlighten CEOs, team leaders, parents, pastors and principals.

Among lessons not yet mentioned:

  • None of us can know or see everything; if we don’t listen, we will never know all that we can – and maybe all that we absolutely need to know -- to act responsibly.
  • It’s important to foster feedback and benefit from the expertise of others around us, even if they don’t have as much expertise as we do.
  • If we have shut down others in the past, we can’t expect them to instantly start contributing when we say we’ve turned over a new leaf. Trust takes time. And we have to earn it.

Better systems

Today in many operating rooms newer practices have been adopted to improve relationships and feedback among all members of the surgical team. For example, the procedure begins with everyone stating their name and their role in the surgery – a great way to remind everyone that, in fact, everyone in the room has a role to play and contributions to make.

Also, you’ll find someone other than the head surgeon reading a checklist of vital things that must be addressed from the outset in order for the surgery to be successful. That’s because even highly-experienced and trained professionals can skip over something vital if everyone doesn’t paint by the numbers at the start. Crutches help – use them.

It’s on us

In our own settings – be it our homes, workplaces, communities or parishes – we can develop our own little procedures and protocols to help assure that we make maximum use of all the talents at the table in order to do and to be our very best as we grow and help others grow to serve as Jesus calls us to serve in the Gospels.

Through it all, be mindful of Jesus’ own S3 approach to leadership:

  • Servant it’s not about me.
  • Steward it’s not mine.
  • Shepherd people are precious.

Any one of these lessons could be life-saving someday.