Eleanor Pittard discusses the best approach to leadership and the dangers of a ‘one size fits all’ strategy.
In many industries – but particularly dentistry – a lot of people try to be both the leader and the manager.
It can be difficult to separate the two. However, it is vital to know that they are very different roles with different objectives.
A manager should provide direction, looking at the operational goals. Whereas a leader should provide inspiration, looking at strategy, culture and purpose. Of course, you can do both, but it is important to approach each position in different ways.
In 1939, psychologist Kurt Lewin identified three distinct leadership styles. Over time, others have added to this list, but the original three have remained current in modern-day teaching of business leadership.
Today, there are four recognised leadership styles: autocratic, democratic, laissez-faire, and (the additional fourth) transformational.
But what do they actually mean?
In a nutshell: ‘Do as you’re told.’
This is usually a singular figure who leads the strategy, policies, procedures, and direction of the organisation.
They tend not to collaborate with others, rarely seek feedback and quite enjoy being the one with the power. In addition, they are decisive, self-confident and have a steadfast commitment to the goal, making them great in urgent or chaotic situations that require effective decision-making.
The downside is that employees can, at times, feel micromanaged. They may become dependent for decision-making, as they’re too scared or incapable of taking the initiative to make decisions on their own.
They like to get everyone involved, maximising input from the team. Democratic leaders are still decision-makers, but their approach allows others to feel engaged. They excel at sparking creativity in teams.
They are great communicators, approachable and often have a sense of curiosity that drives their desire for input from all team members. This can heighten morale and lead to more creativity.
But inevitably, some will feel left out as their ideas have not been chosen. The confidence that builds in the team can become problematic if the group is not skilled or trained to answer specific business needs but have been encouraged to have a voice.
As a result, they can be left feeling like they have let you down.
They tend to leave decisions to their team while staying available to provide feedback if necessary. They are the don at delegation, instil confidence in employees, are usually a dab hand at giving constructive criticism, and are willing to place responsibility in their team.
This can work well, as people tend to make faster decisions when they do not need to ask for approval; some thrive when they feel they are trusted to do the job at hand without any guidance.
However, if the employee does not fully understand the business mission, without direction or oversight, they can become distracted and fail to accomplish much. This requires a consistent and persistent open discussion on the business vision and regular catch-up meetings.
This involves a grand vision for the business – one that encourages and rallies everyone to jump on board. It motivates the team to transform and evolve with the business, both personally and professionally. They are driven to commit their effort, time and energy into the organisation’s goal.
This can be great, but it can lead to burnout. It requires constant communication and feedback between leadership and the team, and if those lines are severed in any way, the latter can feel left out of the big picture.
A tailored approach is key
Every leadership role has its good and bad qualities, and that’s because one way of leading is not always the best way. When dealing with complex human beings, we need a myriad of tactics and approaches. For a business to survive, and indeed, thrive, there must be a leader. But, as a leader, you must remember that one size does not fit all. You should be able to adapt and lead individuals in a tailored approach. This requires sensitivity and openness to change.
In short, being a leader is hard. It takes constant reappraisals and self-reflecting. I have managed and lead both dental practices and a laboratory. I can say it is never easy, and no two days are ever the same. Dentistry is that odd anomaly where the leader is often required to work both on and in the business, as both the leader and the manager.
Start a conversation
Take the time now to reflect on your style of leadership – maybe it’s different to how you envisioned. I recommend giving your current team a questionnaire and introducing this into the hiring process.
Ask which leadership style they thrive under, under which learning style they absorb the most information and their individual symptoms of ‘burnout’.
Add quarterly meetings to the diary and stick to them. These don’t need to be ground-breaking, but just checking in is helpful.
If you are managing and leading, then look at your team and see if you can pick out any potential managers who may just need some training. This could be someone who can help direct the day-to-day operations of the business, so you can focus on the end goals.
As an employee, consider carefully what leadership style you would prefer and whether that is achievable in the business. Is there something you can do to help facilitate it? Ask your leaders or manager for a meeting to discuss this and let them know how you think it’ll improve the running of the business.
If you are unsure about the direction of the business and where you fit in, ask them for a meeting to discuss it.
On both sides, the first and most important thing to do is start the conversation.
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