Understanding leadership within a dental context

LeadershipJamie Morley discusses the importance of leadership within dental teams and why many practices might misunderstand what it involves.

The word leadership is used very widely these days. Frequently people use it in the context of it either lacking in a team, organisation or business. Or of leadership leading to that team, organisation or business having great success. But what exactly is it and why is it important within the context of dentistry?

If you ask people what leadership is, often they will give what they think are characteristics of a great leader or even the symptoms of great leadership. They may say being charismatic, strong, leading by example…these types of phrases.

These may or may not be characteristics or symptoms of great leadership, but they don’t define what leadership is.

If you look in the dictionary it says that leadership is people who lead and the definition of to lead is: ‘Cause (a person or animal) to go with one by holding them by the hand, a halter, a rope, etc. while moving forward.’

The following definition came from a global group of social scientists: ‘Leadership is the ability to influence, motivate and enable others to contribute to the effectiveness and success of the organisations of which they are members’ Globe Project (House, Hanges, Javidan et al 2004).

I love this definition. And I believe this really captures what leadership is. Influencing, motivating and enabling others to contribute to the success of their organisation.

How does managing link into leadership?

Within organisations and businesses, people in leadership roles where they have employees reporting into them, are often given the title ‘manager’ in a formal reporting line.

We often talk about managing, but what is it? The definition of managing in the Oxford dictionary is as follows: ‘The process of dealing with or controlling things and people’.

For me this is one of the fundamental issues in how people approach leadership. People see it as controlling.

The problem with this is that as much as you think you can control people and want to control them, you really can’t. There are processes and policies that are very important. They help in leading people, but ultimately people always have a choice so you cannot control them 100%.

You can control and manage things, but not people. People always have a choice. You lead people.

Control things, lead people

Is there a position or role where you would want the person only to manage and not lead? Managing is a part of leading but only a part. Alongside this, who wants ‘managing’?

People do not want to be managed or controlled, they want to be led. Because of this I am never sure about giving people the title of ‘manager’. It may sound strange, but isn’t it more appropriate to call a practice manager the practice lead? This is want you want them to do.

There are things that need managing, but you want them to lead people in the practice.

In all the definitions of leaders there is no reference to any formal titles. In any team, and you hear it a great deal within high performing sports teams, you need multiple leaders on the pitch. Not just the official leader, captain or coach, who of course play pivotal leadership roles.

Seeing the potential

There are three areas that I think particularly influence the way in which many dentists, dental professionals and specialists lead.

The first is the way in which clinicians are trained, which in the case of dentists and specialists is over a significant period of time during which they become qualified. Much of this training and learning is based on being specifically and exactly told what to do. It includes a very strict hierarchical structure.

Yet, in many situations this is an outdated and largely ineffective way of leading people.

The second, which is based on comments I hear from dentists, is that the average nurse or receptionist who sits at a relatively low level on the pay scale is not bothered about the work they do and isn’t interested in doing anything more than the bare basics of the job.

I firmly believe that we all have significant potential within us to develop into the best we can be. This applies to everyone.

It is the job of a leader to bring out this potential in everybody at all levels. In fact the impact you can have on these people is even more significant when the right environment and opportunity is created.

It is a view that goes alongside also recognising that there are people who are not right for the position or the practice.

The third is about associates. Owners can sometimes see them as not really being a part of the practice team. This is because they are not legally employed by them, but are often on a contract and self-employed. This to me is irrelevant.

The fact is that they are a critical part of the practice team. And therefore they must be lead appropriately and included as a part of the team.

Why is leadership important?

Are you able to achieve what you want to achieve without motivating, inspiring and influencing those around you? How much more could you achieve if you motivated, inspired and influenced those around you to achieve the goal you have set out to achieve? And how much quicker?

Where there is minimal or no leadership then the following symptoms are present:

On the other hand where there is a high level of leadership the following symptoms are present:

The impact of all these symptoms on the practice is highly significant. It directly affects the hard measures of employee engagement, staff turnover, making change happen and, ultimately, results.

Consider leadership in this way

You can spend time individually doing things or you can spend time leading. It comes down to numbers.

If you have a team of 20 people and you can do something that will inspire them and motivate them towards the goals of the organisation. This is 20 times more impactful than doing an individual task yourself that has nothing to do with leading your team.

This is very relevant when it comes to dentistry and individuals leading within the dental practice. There is always the pull of being a clinician and often the argument of not having time to lead.

Somehow dentists and individuals who have people under their responsibility must find time to lead.

Step back and honestly ask yourself, what symptoms do I notice in the team around me?


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