August Turak

Author Consultant Speaker

A Leadership Prescription (Not Vicodin) from Dr. House

It may be pure folly to try and unravel the Gordian Knot of Dr. House’s leadership philosophy and teaching methodology, but here are a few points that may or may not shed some light.


One of my favorite scenes in the TV series House shows two of his students, as usual, trying to keep up with the Master. One bitterly complains that what they are going through is just the latest in a long string of mind games orchestrated by House for God knows what reason.

“It’s all a script,” he says, “and each of us is supposed to play our part. Well, I refuse to play his game.”

“That’s just what House is counting on,” says his colleague. “The part you’re scripted to play in his game is the guy who refuses to play his game.”

Every week House is accused of being selfish, sadistic, insensitive, manipulative, exasperating, and a host of other high crimes and misdemeanors by his students. Yet every one of them is eventually forced to grudgingly admit that they are better doctors and even better human beings for the experience.

Whatever his own demons, in the end House creates an ideal learning environment, or better said, unlearning environment, for fostering creativity and human growth. Despite his cantankerous and idiosyncratic reputation, potential students sense this opportunity and that is why he always has 20 candidates for every vacancy. It may be pure folly to try and unravel the Gordian Knot of House’s leadership philosophy and teaching methodology, but here are a few points that may or may not shed some light.

1) Uncertainty Great teachers, like experimental psychologists, rely on uncertainty. If the student knows the purpose of the experiment beforehand it skews the result. Opening people up to new modes of thinking means keeping them off balance and guessing, and that is exactly what House accomplishes with his students and more importantly for the success of the show, with his viewers as well.

2) The Student Must Learn to Think for Himself. House is trying to clone his diagnostic genius not produce talented assistants dependent on him. This means he must repel as well as attract in equal measure. House continually holds his students in tension: constantly sucking them in with one hand as he drives them away with the other. Every time they try to lean on him he pulls out his cane and lets them hit the floor. Yet there is more than enough method to his madness to keep them fascinated. It is this push/pull that teaches them to stand on their own two feet or better said, keeps them perpetually on their toes.

3) Rules are Made to be Broken. The secret to House’s diagnostic success is his sixth sense for knowing when and how to break the rules. There is no rule for breaking rules, so his students must learn how to just feel it. House’s chaotic learning environment is designed to help his students acquire this critical instinct.

4) Genius is 10% Inspiration and 90% Perspiration. Einstein famously said that he wasn’t any smarter than most people he just kept at problems longer. In show after show House’s ultimate success relies on his determination in the face of many failures. Many of his most exasperating scenarios are merely tests designed to teach determination in the face of obstacles. Again, he can’t reveal to his students that these tests are merely tests, and they can’t ALL be tests or that would defeat the whole purpose. Freud said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and to teach successfully some of House’s insanity must just be insanity. Like a well-intentioned experimental psychologist forced to keep his subjects in the dark, House must disguise his ultimate intentions to insure valid results.

5) Theory of Mind. House’s real genius lies in his ability to understand people and ferret out their hidden motivations and secret agendas. He is a keen observer of the human animal, and this keeps him two steps ahead of his students and gets him inside the heads of his patients. Many times House saves a patient by forcing him to face a psychological issue that is either making him sick or keeping him sick. And whether they realize it or not, by constantly forcing his students to play head games with him, he is teaching them this priceless skill as well.

6) The Personal IS the Professional. For most of us our professional and personal lives are two distinct things. But for House they are one and the same. One student must learn that her laudable sense of compassion toward patients is clouding her judgment, while another must learn that his issues with his brother are holding him back. House is a mirror, and despite the pain and anger this sometimes produces, in the end it is critical to his student’s professional development. We can’t free ourselves of the emotional baggage and biases that hold us back if we consider our personal lives “off limits” for teachers.

7) Journey into the Unknown. There is no back of the book answer to the diagnostic dilemmas that House must face. His success relies on creativity and innovation in life or death situations. Despite their eagerness to join his team, House’s students, like most of us, want predictability, fairness, and preordained outcomes. House must show them (not tell them) that the most important things in life don’t work like that by mirroring the unknown through his own unpredictability. As my Zen Master said, “Yeah, I’m consistently inconsistent in a consistent kind of way.” If we confine the best teachers to our little box of “fairness” we’ll give up and go home in a hissy fit of hurt feelings long before we learn anything worth a damn.

8) Truth for the Truth’s Sake. We live in a brave new world of relativity where everything is a matter of opinion. House lives in a world of facts and truth. He insists that his students engage in the kind of rigorous reasoning that forces them to face facts no matter how unpleasant or ego damaging those facts may be.

9) Only the Best. House is incredibly demanding, and perhaps above all else this leads to his reputation for insensitivity and lack of fairness. However it is this very trait that forces his students to take improvisational leaps. When I was a kid I complained to my Dad that my grade school football coach was criticizing me. “Augie,” he said, “that means he cares. Start worrying when he stops criticizing you.”

10) Living the Life. House doesn’t hide inside an ivory tower or behind a lectern. He teaches on the job, leads from the front, and shares the challenges he sets for his team. He rubs shoulders with them, and they are privy to the often sordid details of his personal life. House eats his own cooking. He walks a tightrope without a net, and this keeps his students and TV audience coming back for more. Whatever else he may be, House is the real deal and that is why, despite his considerable flaws, we are not surprised when Cameron or Cuddy fall in love with him.

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House is just the latest in a long line of teachers from the movies we spend billions to enjoy. Whether it is Yoda in Star Wars, Morpheus in The Matrix or Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada, the hero is invariably confronted with a baffling and infuriating teacher who masks his true intentions and refuses to “play fair” or “by the rules.” And like House’s students, it is usually only in retrospect that the hero appreciates what he has learned at the price of all this synthetic trauma. Similarly, the American military consistently churns out outstanding leaders by immersing them in chaotic and unpredictable situations where the only rule is expect the unexpected.

Unfortunately, our fictional and military fascination usually doesn’t translate to our lives. We flock to movies based on informal mayhem but insist on learning leadership formally in a safe and sterile class or from a book. We live in a world where no one should feel “uncomfortable,” and where building self-esteem has become the loftiest virtue. But by insisting that our teachers remain rigorously anchored to some safe little box of fairness, we often rob ourselves of something far more valuable than security: Growth. Sadly, the greatest flaw in the TV series House is that Dr. House couldn’t possibly survive a day in today’s corporate and educational environments…HR and Legal would have him burned at the stake.


Follow me on Twitter @augustturak, Facebook, or check out my Forbes blog for more tips and strategies for becoming a great leader – and to discover how service and selflessness is the secret to success in business and in life.