It’s been fifty years since the original Star Trek television series ended and twenty years since the death of the man who starred as the earthy Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, the late DeForest Kelley, but both still offer us timeless teachings. Not only does the program’s space age technology continue to inspire health care innovations, Dr. McCoy’s bristling bedside manner remains a masterclass in how candor is key to garnering trust.
McCoy was the archetype of the irascible, emotional, and argumentative doctor now common in popular culture. Later characters, such as Hugh Laurie’s Dr. Gregory House, shared many of his sharper edges: McCoy wasn’t a stickler for rules, he didn’t suffer fools gladly, and his penchant for action led the ends to justify his means. Yet, it was his brusque and blunt demeanor which earned him the trust of his captain and crewmates.
“I’M A DOCTOR, NOT A…”
While McCoy had a healthy regard for his own abilities and never shied away from expressing his opinions, he wasn’t without humility. When something came up outside his comfort zone, McCoy would invoke some variation of his most famous catchphrase. He was comfortable enough in his own skin to define himself by what he wasn’t, and he was sufficiently secure within his area of expertise to readily concede his ignorance in others.
When it came to advising his commanding officer and friend James T. Kirk, McCoy always spoke truth to power. McCoy delivered his unvarnished views in the best possible way – with the bark off. Kirk benefited from McCoy’s frank counsel, as, by extension, did the crew of the Enterprise. Importantly, McCoy rarely questioned Kirk in front of others, except for Spock, he’d do it behind closed doors in either the captain’s quarters or sickbay.
“IN PLAIN NON-VULCAN ENGLISH…”
Kirk invariably turned to McCoy and Spock for their opinions whenever he was faced with difficult decisions. No matter the question, McCoy would use simple, straightforward words and the occasional metaphor or expletive to put Kirk’s options into stark relief. He liked common language which he’d use like a surgeon’s scalpel to cut to the heart of an issue – eschewing such esoteric verbiage as, well, “eschewing,” “esoteric,” or “verbiage.”
“SMACK RIGHT IN THE OLD HEART…”
Not only would McCoy go straight to the heart of the issue, his candor came straight from the heart. Where Spock would calmly delineate problems and solutions with perfectly precise logic, McCoy would snap back with genuinely heartfelt outbursts and emotional appeals. McCoy meant what he said and said what he meant, often forcefully, leaving an amused Kirk to mockingly quip: “Don’t mince words, Bones, what do you really think?”
McCoy was Kirk’s trusted confidant because Kirk could always trust McCoy’s to tell him his honest opinion – whether he asked for it or not. McCoy never sugarcoated his diagnoses and never bit his tongue, no matter how bitter the truth was. That McCoy spoke with such candor is what gave him credibility, or, as he said in a different context, “The machine is capable of almost anything, but I’ll still put my trust in a healthy set of tonsils.”