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Can dentists be leaders?

Oct. 1, 2005
DENTISTS DO NOT ­auto-matically think that they must learn leadership skills to operate their practices better.

DENTISTSDO NOT ­auto-matically think that they must learn leadership skills to operate their practices better. As practice owners, dentists are perceived as leaders - no matter their levels of leadership skills. Staff members will always defer to them on leadership issues. Only by demonstrating strong leadership skills can dentists create patient-focused, highly profitable practices.

Dentists may turn to many places for leadership guidance. Hundreds of books have been written on the subject. Some are academic in tone while others have imaginative titles such as “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun.” Some books, such as “On Becoming a Leader” by Warren Bennis, are outstanding while others have about as much important information as the average television commercial.

The truth about leadership

Leadership is not a recipe in a cookbook that will generate the same result every time. Today’s effective method could be ineffective in three to five years depending on changes in a practice or the economy. That presents a problem for dentists because they have little time during working hours to devote to leadership.

Where does a dentist look for leadership mentoring, training, and skills enhancement? Leadership is understood differently by each dentist and must be mastered individually. While most of my seminars are dedicated to practical practice-management information that can be used immediately upon returning to the office, I recognize that leadership is different. When I provide leadership education during seminars, I explain that it is difficult to master. That is why practices working with Levin Group receive leadership training to help them carry forward the new systems they are implementing.

Leadership is difficult to master because it is about truth. I’m not referring to truth as traditionally defined, but rather:

1Truth to self
2Truth to staff
3Truth to patients

A dentist who works to achieve all three areas of truth will immediately become a consistently better leader. While these may not be easy to execute, adhering to these truths will improve the leadership skills of most people.

Truth to self

Too many people wander through each day of their lives. Their goal is to get through the day successfully rather than to focus on how to create successful days. Dentistry is a demanding and difficult profession that requires mental and physical focus, but with strong leadership skills, successful days can be created. Just the clinical aspect of dentistry requires significant concentration. As a dentist, you have numerous other responsibilities. Becoming a leader to your team, developing excellent interpersonal relations with patients, dealing with finances, managing the practice and other day-to-day, non-clinical issues must be addressed. Simply handling the clinical aspects of the practice and feeling slightly overwhelmed by the non-clinical aspects leaves many dentists slightly unsatisfied throughout much of their careers. By learning to be truthful with themselves, dentists can infuse their careers and practices with renewed energy and excitement.

Truth to self is not a meditative experience that takes years of mental conditioning. It is acknowledging and answering “Where am I now?” This question has to be answered honestly.

Address the following questions:

Do I make as much money as I would like at this stage of my career?
Do I have the right amount of savings at this stage of my career?
Am I providing the types of services that I think I should in my practice?
What am I unhappy about in my practice?
How do I feel about my dental team?
Do I enjoy most days in the practice?
Are there other career goals I have within the practice?
Do I have sufficient time for family and myself?
Am I in reasonably good health, and what can I do to improve my physical condition?
Are there other areas I would like to enhance, such as travel, hobbies, and spirituality?

Taking the first two bullet points as examples, we find that many dentists are arriving at the age where they thought they would retire - or at least be financially independent. They are finding that they must continue to work. When Levin Group’s sister company, Levin Financial Services, Inc., works with dentists to help them become financially independent, the first step is a written financial plan. It is important to correctly calculate the savings needed to reach financial independence. While this example covers only the first two bullet points, there are hundreds of questions that determine truth to self. The ones I mention are guidelines. Answering them candidly is an excellent first step in leadership.

Dentists cannot excel in leadership until they have a truthful understanding of themselves.

Truth to staff

Most successful people recognize that they have not achieved success alone. For dentists, much success comes from surrounding themselves with the right staff. The question is “What are you giving back?”

The first step in evaluating staff is to understand that team members excel when they have step-by-step systems with scripts for training. Asking team members to become excellent at their jobs without the right kind of training or practice systems is unrealistic. Based on 20 years of experience working with more than 8,500 practices, I think most staff members fall somewhere in the above-average performance level.

Why don’t dentists expect more from team members? Doctors reach their comfort levels and tolerate the status quo. Often, they do not realize how easy it can be to help teams excel by providing step-by-step, comprehensive systems and verbal communication skills that can be taught in a year.

Dentists must address truthfulness with their teams. Some of the questions are:

At what level is each team member achieving?
Have I settled for slightly above average, or do I have an outstanding team?
Am I willing to help my team excel?
Have I told team members what to do to reach the next goal?
Do I give regular feedback?
Has the practice provided opportunity for team members’ growth?

Remember, most staff members are dedicated, hard workers. Their performances are not usually related to their work ethics, but to how skilled they are.

The difference between where your staff is and where you want them to be is what Levin Group calls “the gap.” Moving from one level to another usually does not require a better attitude, but the enhancement of skills. Dentists must evaluate team members and specify which skills they need to reach the next level of competency. Failure to do this guarantees that team members will remain at current levels, or they will become dissatisfied with lack of growth and leave their practices.

Truth to patients

If you are walking down the street and see someone wearing an unappealing outfit, you do not necessarily tell him or her so. You might think it is unnecessary - no one asked your opinion, and it serves no purpose. Unfortunately, many dentists carry the same philosophy into their practices. Doctors tell patients when they have dangerous issues such as broken teeth, decay, or periodontal disease. But they do not explain to patients that there may be obvious issues to come, such as worn-out restorations or teeth, malocclusion, or the need for implants. Often, patients do not know all of their options for comprehensive dentistry.

Truth to patients means that dentists and team members educate patients about available services, especially those they might need now and in the near future. Whether it is replacing a restoration that is not yet fractured, offering an implant in the event of a lost tooth or denture case, or discussing cosmetic dentistry in a positive and enthusiastic manner, all of these add up to truth to patients. Truth to patients supports the philosophy that dentists should not push or sell services to patients in aggressive or manipulative manners, but rather strive to educate them so that they may make the most informed decisions. Informed consent protects dentists and gives patients all options that may be beneficial. Often, dentists hesitate to offer these options to patients who are not experiencing problems evidenced by pain, discomfort, decay, or other discernible symptoms. This makes it difficult for patients to understand why treatment may be necessary. Truth to patients focuses on clear explanations of all options and allows patients to make educated choices.

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Ask yourself: If I were the patient, would I like to know all of my choices or only those that are most evident at the moment, regardless of whether other problems are likely to occur?


Leadership is not a skill that can be mastered at a fixed point. To maintain excellence in leadership, think about truth when you confront issues that relate to yourself, staff, or patients. This includes honestly deciding if you are accumulating the right amount of savings, if you are giving your team opportunities to grow, and whether you are providing the best possible care to patients. In this sense, truth is always confronting reality, exploring options, and selecting those that are most beneficial for yourself, staff, and patients.

To know more about the right amount of savings you should have accumulated at each stage of your career, call (800) 443-3303 or e-mail [email protected] with “Savings Fact Sheet” in the subject line. Contact a Levin Financial Services analyst for a complimentary fact sheet concerning the subject.

Roger P. Levin, DDS, is founder and CEO of Levin Group, a leading dental practice-management consulting firm that is dedicated to improving the lives of dentists through a diverse portfolio of lifetime services and solutions. Since the company’s inception in 1985, Dr. Levin has worked to bring the business world to dentistry. A popular lecturer, Dr. Levin addresses thousands of dentists and staff worldwide each year in 100-plus seminars and at the dental industry’s most prestigious meetings.

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