Being human – the key to good leadership

leadership in dentistryJamie Morley explains how to connect with your dental team and ensure you engage with them on a human level.

Many misinterpret ‘good leadership’ to require creating distance from their team members. This prevents them from engaging with their team members at a human level.

They do this usually because it is easier to make hard decisions and have difficult conversations with people if they are not engaging with them at an emotional level. I have heard dental leaders say they feel they must not be too close to their people.

The downside of this is that you lose one of the most important aspects of being a great leader: the ability to connect.

If you don’t connect with your team on a human level, you cannot lead them effectively. People will not trust you; they are not open and won’t share any concerns they have about the business; some will not admit mistakes and so learn from them; they won’t move mountains to make something happen; and they won’t be honest with you when you are not performing.

Worse, the team may become destructively critical of you when you are not there.

You have to be close to your people, care for them, get to know them and still, when necessary, have uncomfortable conversations and make decisions that may impact them on a personal level. This is an important part of finding the right balance of leadership.

You are human. You cannot be perfect, neither can your staff.

Everything won’t always be rosy in the world or in your practice. There are highs and lows. Yet you can go through the ups and downs with your staff, remaining honest, present and human.

How do you do this?

Become emotionally literate

Although it is changing, over times gone by emotions have been seen as a bad thing. Being over emotional is something people are often criticised for. ‘Pull yourself together’ is something many of us are told from a very young age.

The problem is that it has left many people unable to be emotionally literate.

As a result people have little awareness of their emotions. They are are unable to understand, articulate and express their emotions in a way that helps them cope and actually use them to their advantage rather than suppressing them.

It is critical to become emotionally literate as a leader. This helps you to understand how the people you are leading may feel. As well as be in a place where you can help them harness their emotions in an effective way.

At the end of the day we are human beings and emotions are part of who we are. We are not robots, and that is what makes us all unique, different and fascinating.

It is complex and and not easy. That is why many chose to ignore it. But it is what being human is all about. We cannot ignore it, especially when it comes to leading others.

Ask questions with genuine curiosity

At a fundamental level, one of the best ways to build rapport is to ask people questions.

Why does this help build rapport? Asking someone a question is showing an interest in that person.

It’s important, though, that you ask with genuine curiosity and interest in the answer. Asking a question without having any real interest in the answer, or asking in order to get a specific answer, does not have the same effect. It is obvious to the other person that you are not really interested. You may as well not bother asking.

The two key words here are ‘genuine curiosity’.

A wonderful coach and teacher I had the privilege of learning from taught me this bedrock for building rapport and interacting with others.

Sometimes, showing genuine curiosity requires you to let go of your existing viewpoints and allow the conversation to go where it goes. This can feel a little frightening or annoying if you are someone who likes to be in control. But if you want to build rapport, asking good questions and listening to the answers with genuine interest is a great place to start.

An easy question to do this with is one that many of us ask several times a day: ‘How are you?’

Often people ask this without any true interest in the answer. As a result, the respondent will say something like: ‘I’m fine, thank you.’

If you ask this question and get an answer like this, you could stop and in a genuine tone say: ‘I really am interested to know. How are you?’

When asked genuinely, there is no better way to show interest in somebody than asking how they are. The other person will feel that you are interested and that you do care.

This idea of being genuinely interested in a person and what they have to say is vital to connecting with your people.

Truly listen

Truly listening to somebody means remaining fully present and giving 100% of your attention to that individual, what they are saying and how they are saying it.

It is tempting and easy to start moving ahead and think about what you are going to say in response. This is not being totally present and listening to what the other person has to say.

Sometimes we worry that we won’t have anything to say in response and there is an awkward silence. Don’t be afraid of this; a silent pause is a great way to encourage the person to continue to speak openly. Be ok with silence.

When we are in a debate about a topic, or perhaps when we disagree with something someone says, we can be distracted by planning our response; when we do this, we are not really listening to what the other person is saying.

This is often the case with people who have very fixed views rather than being open to different opinions. The person you’re talking to will pick this up and the conversation becomes a competition.

Being open to and interested in different views and perspectives allows people to be heard. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with or act on what the person has said. But you must listen to and acknowledge it.

This also applies when people come to talk to you about something they are struggling with. It can feel like they are wanting answers or a solution from you. But this is not always the case.

Sometimes people just want to voice a concern or frustration. Having someone listen to them is helpful in its own right.

They may even find it annoying if you suggest solutions that they may already have thought about.

Be open and vulnerable

Some dental leaders find it hard to connect with their people. Despite employing some of the skills above, there is something missing.

This may be because they are not being open about themselves and who they are.

Being open doesn’t mean you have to share everything about your personal life outside of work. But people want to feel that you are human just like them. That you have challenges and are not perfect, just like them; that you have weaknesses and vulnerabilities, just like them; have to manage your life outside of work, just like them; and that you have emotions, just like them.

If you are not open and vulnerable as a leader, there will always be something missing. You will struggle to build that genuine connection with your people that is essential to your practice’s success.

Being human is therefore critical to being a successful leader. It is something you can work on.

Give it the time it requires and, above all, be genuinely interested in the people in your practice you are leading.

Jamie Morley is the author of Lead Your Dental Practice available at

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