Providing that much-needed "direct leadership" in your practice

Nov. 1, 2004
"Leadership is a combination of strategy and character. If you must be without one, be without strategy." — General Norman Schwarzkopf

Col. Sidney A. Brooks, DDS

"Leadership is a combination of strategy and character. If you must be without one, be without strategy." — General Norman Schwarzkopf

The U.S. Army is a values-based organization which insists its leaders set and maintain high standards, lead by example, do what is legally and morally right and influence other members of the team to do the same. The Army defines three distinct levels of leadership: direct, organizational, and strategic. For the purpose of this article, I want to focus on the level on which most dental offices operate. Direct leadership is the first and most demanding level for dentists to comprehend. It can add much-needed stability to an often chaotic environment.

Leadership, by definition, is simply the act of influencing people by providing direction and motivation to accomplish a specific task or activity. "Direct leadership" within the dental practice is the face-to-face or hands-on approach of the first-line supervisor directing people to meet specific goals or tasks.

Leaders help the staff see the big picture. They connect the day-to-day learning activities with the office's mission, vision, and fundamental strategies. Leaders also help staff to increase their performance levels. Good leaders challenge members to reach higher levels of performance, support that commitment, and coach individuals so they can reach them.

Effective leadership from the top of the organization down is the most important and definitive business enabler. Its execution can make or break a successful dental practice. The dentist, by virtue of his or her education level and experience, should provide that leadership. For any business or practice to grow profitably and predictably, it must invest and continuously re-invest in solid, performance-based leadership.

Leaders are multitalented, self-driven, highly motivated risk takers and often must be "out of the box" thinkers. They must be both competent and confident in their profession. Leaders need to exhibit consistency and incorporate ethical reasoning within their practices. Ethical leaders tend to do the right things for the right reasons all the time, even when no one is watching. Dentists who display good leadership skills continue to teach, grow, and develop members of their staffs; and this process never ends.

So what's the role of managers, then? Dental office managers traditionally have a tendency to focus on tangible processes such as operating systems, planning, organizing, controlling, and scheduling. Good leaders, on the other hand, tend to be oriented on the human dimension of a practice and are closely tuned into the intangibles. Leaders are innovative problem solvers who rely on the strengths of people to get the job done. Managers, for practical purposes, will tend to affect work, while leaders affect people.

Leadership at any level is a continuous, dynamic process that requires both self-knowledge and examination to determine the strengths and weaknesses as a leader. For the dentist, "direct leadership" is not only a requirement in today's competitive market, but is paramount for the efficient and productive operations within the office. Improving leadership techniques requires constant study, due diligence, and frequent practice for it to work correctly.

To help ensure best practices, dentists tend to train others from their own experience while they also maintain and enforce standards within their offices. Direct leadership requires excellent oral and written communications to the staff that clearly define your intent and direction for the practice. As the office staff grows in size and complexity, it becomes critical that effective communication flows unrestricted in all directions within the organization.

Major corporations in this country have an articulated vision statement to assist the leadership in accomplishing its goals. A clear vision allows all staff members the opportunity to focus their efforts in one direction. For the purpose of this editorial example, the owners of the practice have the ultimate responsibility to develop, train, and re-enforce this vision in a way that all team members can comprehend.

A written mission statement is an indispensable tool to synchronize the segmented business roles within a practice; this is especially true in a large group practice. Having a simple executable mission statement significantly increases the chance for success for everyone involved, especially when the owners are not present.

Direct leadership requires dentists to display certain interpersonal skills or "people skills." These skills consist of, but are not limited to, effective communications, team building, supervising, and yes, counseling. Good leaders must gain the trust necessary in building professional and personal relationships inside and outside the office. Staff will simply not follow a leader they do not trust.

To develop this high level of trust, leaders need to have the time to demonstrate a pattern of consistency towards their employees. Once people trust their leader as a person, then they become more likely to trust his or her leadership. The second- and third-order effects of this new-found trust can be good and bad. Staff members often will seek direction from you on many subjects not related to dentistry as the level of trust increases. Many leaders have been required to assume ancillary leader roles within the office as a marriage counselor, realtor, coach, minister, and financial advisor to their staff and patients as well.

Good leaders should reward the best performers in the practice. Reward those who demonstrate a commitment to your vision. Leaders also need to look for innovative ways to improve their business practices. At the same time, leaders must remove or terminate "foot draggers." Keep in mind the people and processes that interfere with your ability to move ahead and compete. Not only do they consume resources and time, but they get in the way of the high achievers around you. Replacement of these terminated staff members can cause turmoil in the office, but this is your opportunity to hire, train, and develop the staff that meets your needs rather than having to settle for mediocre performance or poor behavior.

Good leadership is a necessary skill that develops and matures with time, experience, and dedication. The dentist is the leader of the team and every effort should be made to build upon these skill sets through our continuing-education process much like the Army trains its leaders to assume increasing levels of responsibility.

Col. Sidney A. Brooks is the Commander of the U.S. Army Dental Command, overseeing 172 dental clinics around the world on a daily basis. He currently resides at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. To learn more about the Army Dental Corps, visit

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