Be the Guide, Not the Hero

The Family Doctor used to be almost the only source of medical information patients had access to. Now, few people need us to bring them the latest news. It’s there for everyone to see. There’s even too much of it.

Today, our role is to help make sense of it all. In order to do that, we must possess and project authority, but we have no reason to put ourselves on any kind of pedestal.

In our culture, evidenced by the stories we read, the movies we watch and many of the ways we interact with the world, people see themselves as heroes of their own lives, the main actors in their own narratives. Most Westerners aspire to reach higher levels of skill, status, health or wealth. We, deep down, generally don’t connect well with heroes who are flawless and obviously much better than we are, and we identify the deepest with products, companies and professionals who help us move toward our personal goals.

Today’s business literature urges entrepreneurs and business leaders to take on a supportive role rather than flaunt their achievements or expertise. “Be the Guide, Not the Hero” is a quote from Donald Miller of StoryBrand.

The dominating narratives present a flawed, insecure hero, who faces challenges while also reaching a higher level of insight, and he or she is supported by a guide who is older or wiser (Obi-Wan Kenobi or Yoda) but in no way competing with the fledging hero. These characters have been there, done that, and have nothing to prove. They are portrayed in ways that indicate they are supremely competent and yet almost self effacing. It is not their turn to shine.

That is a useful way for doctors to think of themselves. We must support our patients in their own pursuit of health and happiness. They must find out or choose for themselves. We can not make them do things that they don’t see or feel by themselves. And we have no right to expect that they will always follow our advice.

Our quality metrics can make us feel as if we are the main characters, or heroes in the story analogy, in our interactions with our patients. The results of our efforts can make us feel as if we are experiencing success or failure. This in turn can create job stress and burnout.

By adopting and staying in the role of Guide, physicians can preserve their stamina and enthusiasm for each and every patient encounter. We offer guidance, but every hero is free to choose whether or not to accept our words of wisdom.

1 Response to “Be the Guide, Not the Hero”


  1. 1 sjdmd August 18, 2018 at 11:49 pm

    Wisdom. Same in teaching/mentoring, especially residents and beyond.


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Osler said “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis”. Duvefelt says “Listen to your patient, he is telling you what kind of doctor he needs you to be”.

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