Advice: Snakes and ladders – the path to success

Dental business coach Alun Rees looks at some of the challenges clinicians face including hubris, humility, hypocrisy and happiness.

  • Date: 18 February 2022

Snakes and laddersI’M privileged to work with groups of dentists and their teams, and one subject we examine regularly is the dilemma of finding success. I draw analogies between professional life and the game of snakes and ladders, often focussing on the letter “H” for examples of some of the challenges faced, including hubris, humility, hypocrisy and happiness.


The word hubris, our first “snake”, originated in ancient Greece and describes “a personality quality of extreme or excessive pride or dangerous overconfidence". The example is Icarus who ignored advice, flew too close to the sun, his wings melted and he fell to his death.

It is often used in combination with, or as a synonym for, arrogance. It is easy to acquire and troublesome to deal with. This is one of the snakes that may feel initially like a ladder.

Confidence or arrogance?

The difference between confidence and arrogance can be very small and the transition gradual and unnoticed.

Dentists need to have confidence in our abilities as physicians and surgeons, as communicators and leaders. Human nature shows that pride comes before a fall and it can be easy to veer towards the over-confident until something happens to remind us that we are fallible and do not know everything. Nobody can be right all the time and a small correction is all that is needed to get back on track.

However, there can be a temptation to presume that because things have gone well, they will continue to go well. Simply because, to our knowledge, nothing has failed does not mean that everything will be a success.

I recently did a brief, unscientific, poll with three of my clients on the subject of implants. They all place and restore implants; all agree that in order to maintain their skills and confidence they must do a minimum number per year. Client A said that number was 50 placements, Client B said 100 and Client C said 200. All three were sure they were correct. I asked purely out of interest and didn’t share the opinions with the others. I don’t know who, if anyone, is right.


At the other end of the scale comes humility, which I believe to be the opposite of arrogance. I agree with CS Lewis who said that “humility is not thinking less of yourself, rather is thinking of yourself less”. Mike Wise (the experienced specialist dentist) taught me that the true test of professionalism, integrity and character is what you do when nobody is looking.

The pressure of time, money, patient expectation and, sometimes, our peers all exert forces into our decision making and actions that may not be the very best.

Peer pressure delivered by social media or in the guise of faux friendship can make things worse. Dentistry has acquired more than its share of wannabe “influencers” looking to experience their 15, or more, minutes of fame without responsibility. The rise of “KOIs” (key opinion leaders) who are paid to promote products, while trying to retain an air of independence, can distract and even mislead the unwary.


Another snake. It’s a dramatic word of which mankind’s ability to indulge in self-deception is just one example. This can contribute to the consequences of hubris where self-belief becomes so strong that caution is reduced or even discarded with unpredictable results.

“Beware wanting the sale more than the customer” is an old warning given to trainee sales people; its extension is “beware wanting the patient to say yes to the treatment plan”. Whilst caveat emptor, or buyer beware, is a familiar phrase to all consumers, we also must be mindful of caveat venditor which places the onus of responsibility on the seller or provider.

If the dentist, or their representative, does not truly understand, and share, the possible complications or limitations of a treatment in the short, medium and long term, then how can the patient consent to elective treatment?

On the subject of sales and awareness, marketing sales training as “ethical” does not automatically make it so.


It’s the final “H” word and a ladder to success. The happiest people I have met in dentistry, and in spite of what you may hear, there are a great many of them, are those who have accepted and thrived in their role as a “trusted adviser” and see the long term.

They understand that their place is to help their patients and the teams in which they work as well as helping their chosen profession to improve. This involves constantly seeking to better themselves not purely for their own sake but in order to serve. They have clarity about their role, are trustworthy and forgiving and the principles that they espouse in their professional lives are reflected in every facet of their life.

There you have it. Two ladders, two snakes and 4 H’s. The ladders require hard work to climb, and the snakes can bring you back down a few pegs, with a bump or worse.

Alun K Rees is an experienced dental practice owner who works as a coach, consultant, troubleshooter, analyst, speaker, writer and broadcaster. Find out more at

This page was correct at the time of publication. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

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