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The legacy of leaders ... and the road less traveled

Jan. 1, 2007
Whenever I speak in public, I always tell the story of the day my dental career changed forever.

Whenever I speak in public,I always tell the story of the day my dental career changed forever. It was a day like any other day when I was faced with the problem that poet Robert Frost eloquently expressed in his classic poem “The Road Not Taken:”

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both,
And be one traveller, long I stood,
And looked down one as far as I could,
To where it bent in the undergrowth.
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It was a day when I felt very confused about my future in dentistry. Until that point, I hadn’t found my place. I was wandering without direction. I was taking a lot of continuing education, and learning new techniques. Some techniques were purely clinical and others fell under the category of practice management.I registered to be a student at the Pankey Institute. On the very first morning of my Pankey experience, I heard a man speak who would change my professional life forever. The Pankey Institute has always had a reputation for teaching dentists comprehensive dentistry with an emphasis on occlusion.At this point in my career, I questioned my abilities to do the kind of dentistry that I had heard about. As I sat in the lecture hall, I still wondered if I belonged in that class. The same self-esteem issues I confronted in dental school were returning. As I listened to the lecture, I thought it wouldn’t be too bad because, after class, I could just go to the beach and relax in sunny Key Biscayne, Fla.But then Dr. Irwin Becker said something that changed my life:“Some of you will get this stuff right away...some will take 20 times to get it, but I guarantee all of you will get it.”I still remember those words today because it was the first time I had ever heard a dental educator reach out to students and offer something other than a technique...he was offering hope! I didn’t hear him say anything about learning a technique or a new skill. What I heard him say was that with the guidance of the Pankey Institute, I could make sense of a field that had turned out to be much more complex than I thought it would be when I graduated from dental school.Maybe I am different from you, but I doubt it. I always wanted my job to have meaning. Fixing a tooth - detached from the mouth and the person - is a simple thing. The complexity of dentistry lies in understanding how the mouth works with all of its components linked together for the purpose of extending a healthy and happy life.The complexity of dentistry also includes how to inspire people to go forward toward health - in other words, how to lead our patients like Dr. Becker was leading me that morning.The late Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, John Gardner, once said, “A loyal constituency is won when people, consciously or unconsciously, judge the leader to be capable of solving their problems and meeting their needs.” In other words, people will follow someone who is attuned to their aspirations, fears, and ideals. My choice to follow Dr. Becker that morning was not based on his authority, position, or reputation as a great clinician, but rather on my perception that he could help me meet my needs...a perceived capacity to meet my needs!Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there,
Had worn them really about the same.
My problems that morning were more about making a life in dentistry, so I chose the road that not many dentists choose. Completing the Continuum at the Pankey Institute would require a deep commitment to succeed, but I knew that morning that this road was accessible, and that others had successfully navigated it before me. This was Dr. Becker’s promise.And both that morning equally lay,
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh,
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
And so on that morning, with the promise of Dr. Becker, I left the other directionless road forever. They say once you make this kind of decision it’s impossible to turn back... I agree. Whether a dentist, or a patient, it is very difficult to step onto an unknown path. Leaders are important because they help us make those life-altering decisions. I am modest when it comes to my accomplishments, both personal and professional, but I shudder to think how life would have been if I had continued down the other road. Certainly, the road less traveled has made all the difference. The leader’s legacy, what he or she will be remembered for, is the ability to meet the deeper needs of his or her constituency and create a hopeful future.As Robert Frost writes, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.” I, too, traveled down new roads where I met new friends and colleagues. I could never have imagined where that road would lead on that fateful morning in Key Biscayne.Somewhere down the road, I met other wonderful people who advised that I attend a meeting of The American Academy of Dental Practice Administration, or what we affectionately call AADPA. Going to AADPA was an amazing experience because this was another group, very similar to the Pankey Institute, of very committed and concerned professionals.Before that morning I felt very alone in dentistry, but these days I look forward to returning to The Pankey Institute and now to the annual AADPA meeting, because it’s just like coming home.To quote another great poet, T.S. Eliot, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” My journey has led me to the life I have created...a life I yearned for.This year, AADPA will hold its annual meeting, titled “Beyond Success,” from Feb. 28-March 4 at the Hyatt, Gainey Ranch in Phoenix, Ariz. This meeting will be special for me because three of the speakers are friends and fellow travelers - Dr. Sam Low, Dr. Henry Gremillion, and Dr. Irwin Becker. If you have never heard them speak, I promise you will be exposed to more than you bargained for...because as teachers from the Pankey Institute, they are not just about clinical dentistry. An invitation is required to go to AADPA, so if you are interested, send me an e-mail at [email protected]. I would love to meet future travelers. Who knows? Maybe your life could change, too!
Barry F. Polansky, DMD, practices in Cherry Hill, N.J. Author of the book, “The Art of the Examination,” and publisher of Dental Life, he is on the visiting faculty of the Pankey Institute. E-mail him at [email protected].

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