dental team leadership

There has never been a greater need for inspiring leadership in a dental practice than there is right now. There may have been a time, many years ago, when a dentist could get away with a minimalist approach to team leadership, where they could just focus mostly on their own clinical role and hire people to focus on their own roles, as they moved patients through the system day by day.

But dentistry has changed. As I have written and talked about many times, the huge advances in dental technology and techniques, and the new possibilities for esthetic transformations (not to mention the significant limitations of insurance in covering these procedures), have changed the landscape by changing expectations. Patients today are not just patients—they are consumers, and you are in a fight for their mindshare and their discretionary dollars.

That means it is more important than ever that you build a team that is aligned around a practice vision and that is as dedicated and as focused on value creation as they are on their own specific job tasks. Dentistry today requires a new kind of dental team for a new era. And creating that team takes leadership.
Yet the development of leadership skills is not usually part of the training in becoming a dentist. You graduate with a degree that says you have the clinical qualifications to practice dentistry. When it comes to figuring out the right strategies for being an effective businessperson and employer, you are pretty much on your own.

The Three Dominant Styles of Leadership

So the question is, what kind of leader are you? Are you a natural motivator, one who is good at stimulating imaginations and driving people to new levels? Or are you uncomfortable with the responsibilities of leadership and content to delegate as much as possible? What are your default inclinations when it comes to providing insight and direction to those around you?

In my experience, I have found that dentists who have not had leadership training tend to lean toward one of three dominant styles of leadership, each with their own pros and cons. Let’s break it down:

The Boss

The Boss is a tough, consistent manager who is clear about establishing expectations and creating accountability. The boss has worked out in detail who does what, and when, and expects direction to be followed conscientiously, often to the letter.

The obvious advantage to this style of leadership is that everyone knows exactly what is expected of them all the time. The disadvantage is that it tends to limit the creativity of team members, and a certain amount of flexibility—the ability to spot issues and opportunities and respond swiftly—is a defining attribute of a really effective dental team.  

In a practice where the owner-dentist takes a boss approach, the team learns quickly that the easiest way to keep things moving smoothly is to just do what the boss says. It’s no coincidence, however, that these are the same practices where the dentist is likely to say that the main problem with the team is that they lack initiative and need to be told everything. You create a trap where you do all the worrying. I have always said the ideal position for leader is to be surrounded by people who do your worrying for you. But to do that you have to give them the training and the room to grow into that responsibility.

The Teacher

The Teacher is committed to improvement and recognizes that team members need information and education. Dentists who follow this mode of leadership are always giving the team more ideas about how to do their jobs in terms of relating to patients and improving the practice. These doctors attend a lot of CE courses and are eager to share everything they learned, coming back from a weekend away on Monday morning with binders full of notes and new strategies to implement.

This commitment to ongoing education is admirable. The problem arises when all these new strategies are presented with little context or structure. What happens then is that team members, who weren’t there when the dentist absorbed all this exciting new information, play a wait and see game to find out how serious the doctor is about these new strategies this time. They become jaded with all the things are going to change around here debriefings that seem to go nowhere.

For their part, the doctors who adopt this style of leadership often become frustrated too. “Here I am giving the team all these great resources and valuable training tips I spent great time and money acquiring,” they think, “but very little seems to be successfully implemented, or even attempted.”

The Friend

The Friend is the team leader whose main concern is creating a comfortable environment where everyone’s voice is heard, everyone trusts one another, and everyone gets along. These doctors build practices that are noted for their loyalty and emotional allegiance. By breaking down the barriers between leaders and followers, they create an environment where everyone feels valued and appreciated. Not surprisingly, these are the kind of practices where team members report high levels of satisfaction.

The problem with this style of leadership is that it lacks leadership. Instead of being a thought leader who sets goals and creates accountability, you become the mayor of a democracy where everyone has an equal vote—and sometimes your preferred objectives get voted down. It’s as if you no longer own the practice; your team does.

The Right Approach

So which of these three styles of leadership is the best? The answer, of course, is none of them. And at the same time – all of them.

Every one of these approaches has its obvious strengths. And every one, when implemented with single-minded determination, will leave you with significant blind spots.
To be a great leader in this new landscape of dental  practice opportunities requires taking a more nuanced approach to team leadership—one that incorporates the best from all these traditional approaches, while avoiding the pitfalls that come with pursuing one particular closed-in method of aligning your troops.

The most effective practice leader of today does not lead only by command, nor dump a series of new strategies on an unprepared team, nor leave the direction of the practice open to debate. The true leader in today’s best dental practice demands the firm accountability of The Boss, the sense of possibilities of The Teacher and the spirit of collaboration of The Friend.  

To be a great leader in dentistry today is to be a master of all these approaches to leadership, while being savvy enough to rise above the difficulties that come with each of them. Today’s great dentist manages to transcend the usual and has found a way to make the most of all the abilities of all the people around them, in a way that creates the most value for their patients.

(Click this link to read more articles by Imtiaz Manji.)

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