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Becoming a better leader

Nov. 1, 2006
“The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born,” says management guru Warren Bennis.
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“The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born,” says management guru Warren Bennis. These may be the truest words ever spoken on the subject. Leadership is not something that can be handed down to you from a mentor. It is not genetic. Instead, it is a skill that can be learned like any other skill with enough knowledge, practice, and desire. People with different personalities and backgrounds can become leaders - there is no particular requirement.

Based on its 21 years of experience consulting to dental practices, Levin Group has found 10 basic traits common among dentists who are the best leaders. No single trait is more important than another. Your ultimate challenge as a leader is to combine all 10 traits to accomplish your goals and improve your life and become the best leader possible.

1. Interpersonal skills

Interpersonal skills are the foundation of leadership. In business, there are many successful “tough” bosses. Even though they may be disliked, they are respected. Unfortunately, being tough is not always the best strategy, especially in dentistry. Few dentists can be a tough leader and still expect to have happy team members. The best leaders can motivate their staffs, get things done, and still be respected. They have the ability to balance rigidity, flexibility, motivation, and communication.

The acquisition of interpersonal skills is a lifetime quest. Most people would like to know how to better get along with others, but leaders are intent on developing the proper skills to make this happen.

2. The ability to make decisions

As the CEO of the practice, the dentist must make the decisions. There are many people who do not progress in their personal or business lives simply because they teeter between two ideas and never decide which one to choose. In contrast, successful people make decisions quickly and change them slowly.

No matter what the issue, excellent leaders make decisions and trust their instincts, based on analysis, education, and experience. Why? Because leaders are willing to believe in themselves. Strong leaders are confident they have the ability to assess information and make decisions that are in the best interest of themselves and their teams. They may seek information or recommendations from the team, but eventually they will come to a conclusion on their own. The team will commit to the decision if it is properly presented.

3. The ability to motivate

Motivation is one of the most important skills for a leader. The leader is able to bring together a team of people to achieve goals and move toward a vision.

Most people are not self-motivated. Instead, some external force motivates them. In this case, the “external force” is the leader. However, the leader must be surrounded by people who share the same vision. This way, it is easier to motivate others and work as a team.

Leaders motivate in many different ways. Some use financial incentives or the power of their personalities. Others educate their team with practice goals. Regardless of the technique, the leader understands how to motivate each individual and the team. Unmotivated team members are not committed to achieve the leader’s goals.

Although leaders are also motivated externally, they also tend to have a high level of self-motivation. For example, think of individuals who never displayed leadership skills. Then, all of a sudden, their demeanor changed and they became true leaders almost overnight. What inspired the change? In dentistry, it could be a surge in office turnover, high overhead, or some other situation that threatens the practice’s bottom line. Whatever the scenario, the solution involves a defining moment for dentists who must change their old behavior and be proactive. This newfound leadership ability easily translates into other areas of their lives as well.

4. Emotional consistency

Team members look to leaders for guidance, calmness, and strength - especially during stressful moments. They will follow the leader if they believe that the leader knows where he or she is going. This can only occur if the leader displays certain levels of strength and confidence.

Emotional consistency is not always an easy personality trait to adopt. Leaders, by their driven nature, tend to push the envelope. At times, they are emotional when things do not go as planned because of unforeseen obstacles. For team members, it is very destabilizing to see their leaders lose their temper, display signs of depression, or have significant mood swings. People usually do not like to work for individuals whose temperament is unpredictable.

Maintaining emotional stability and projecting confidence allows your staff to understand your personality, which could be upbeat, steady, or even a bit down occasionally. What matters is that the team members feel they know where they stand with you at all times, regardless of your mood.

5. Pursuit of knowledge

Leaders are usually in constant pursuit of knowledge. Individuals who want to excel in the management of a dental practice tend to read, listen, and learn as much as possible about the subject of dental management. These leaders do not learn sporadically, but tend to be consistent in learning new ideas and strategies on how to properly manage a dental practice.

6. Technical knowledge

Leaders are seldom jacks-of-all-trades. Instead, they are usually experts in very specific areas. A respected leader must have the technical knowledge to back up his or her leadership position. Leaders should recognize the need to continually advance their expertise in order to act in a true leadership capacity.

However, as important as technical knowledge is, it must be viewed as an adjunct of strong leadership, not a replacement for it. An office manager can suffer the same plight. Technical skill alone does not guarantee leadership skill.

7. Self-discipline

Leaders who are not self-disciplined find it very difficult to achieve goals consistently. Although they may discipline themselves inconsistently, leaders accomplish as much as possible when motivated. A leader without self-discipline will find it difficult to move forward on a regular basis. This will diminish the quest for the vision.

Self-discipline is partly achieved by the leader’s excitement and passion for the work. This is why people excel at things they enjoy, and often fail at things they find burdensome. One of the keys to leadership is to enjoy your work and translate that enjoyment to others on the team.

8. Teamwork

Leaders never work on their own. They rely on their teams to help execute their goals. However, many people take advantage of this concept and become “rulers,” not leaders. Therefore, all leaders must remember that they are part of a group dynamic. In fact, the leader is like the coach of a basketball or football team. He or she creates a game plan, sets the project into motion, and monitors the project’s success.

9. Superior time management

Time is one of the leader’s most important assets. Leaders must not only manage their own schedules, but their team’s as well. However, good leaders do not watch over their teams and micromanage. They provide their teams with deadlines and checkpoints, and only monitor the results.

Successful leaders simply use time better and more wisely than others. They also eliminate extraneous items from their lives that take time away from achieving their goals.

10. Strategic planning

Strategic planning goes beyond plotting specific goals. Good leaders should be able to look at a project - or series of projects - and plan a course of action. Strategic planning is a general direction that is established based on the original vision. Under the right conditions, leaders can often look into the future to evaluate what needs to be accomplished along the way.

Leadership and a stronger practice

Using these leadership skills will take you one step closer to a better, stronger practice. However, do not think you need to be the “perfect” leader to be successful. Leadership is about learning to work with others and listening to those with whom you work. The result will be a more efficient, more enjoyable practice for you and your team.

Roger P. Levin, DDS, is founder and CEO of Levin Group, a leading dental 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. Levin Group may be reached at (888) 973-0000, or at

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