The Path to Becoming an Ideal Leader
By: Dr. Amisha Singh
The new year trickled in slowly this time, settling into the familiar curves and crevasses of the life which we have been living. In some ways, this new year felt like an extension of the past two years. Still battling a pandemic that many of us would never have predicted to last this long, still emotionally numb from so many changes to our life, we forged onward in uncertainty. Our hearts still ached from both historical assaults and new losses. Some of us had colleagues and friends who lost everything in the Marshall fire. The Omicron variant numbers were impacting almost one in three Coloradans. Our home, our land, and our history reeled in fear and hope alike. We persisted. We gathered in community (socially distanced, in-person and remote). We sprinkled acts of kindness as we moved forward. We centered our humanity.
I started this new year by spending a week on Zoom with my doctoral cohort. I am getting my doctorate in education, and we have “intensive weeks” throughout the year, weeks in which we finish three graduate credit hours in less than four days. Yes, it is as crazy as it sounds. After my first intensive week, I learned quickly why they are called “intensive.” They certainly live up to their name. In this course, a class on leadership, the schedule could not have been timelier. One member of our cohort, a local chief of police, was dealing with the aftermath of the fire between classes. Others, who are in higher leadership at schools across the country, were hopping on calls to discuss flipping to remote learning for the first half of January. In class, we discussed leadership, and, during our breaks, we lived it. So, as we wrote papers and did group projects and worked on our day jobs in the small moments we could find, I had a unique opportunity to intentionally think about what successful leadership looks like. In our practices and communities, we are all leaders, whether we want to be or not. I remind my students of this every day. With the opportunity our doctorate brings us, there is also responsibility. We owe it to our communities, our team and our patients to be the best version of ourselves, as leaders, doctors and individuals. So, what does this look like? Is there a magic formula? It turns out, the evidence says there is not. BUT, there are themes that we can follow to craft our own ideal. Three elements of leadership that I have tried to embrace over the years include authenticity, humility and trust.
For the longest time, I held a very narrow and constricted view of a leader. Part of it was being socialized by media and society. Part of it was my own inhibitions and imposter syndrome. Without ever consciously realizing it, I took an inventory of the pieces of me that made me who I am and chose which ones I needed to diminish to fit into the box of ambition, at least in the public eye. I could not smile too wide or be too emotional, lest the world see me for who I am: a young, hopeful, sometimes unsure BIPOC woman. I felt like I did not check any of the boxes. But slowly, I began seeing people break the mold on my TV or news feed. We elected a half-South Asian VP. All politics aside, she smiled wide, with all of her teeth showing. And I saw myself in her joy, in her authenticity. Representation matters and this power of recognizing that the truths I previously held were shattering helped me find the leadership which I had in me all along. Now, I could embrace it.
Leadership’s path is also strewn with imperfection. It is impossible to get anything right on the first try, yet I still expected this of myself. I expected this as a new associate, as a young practice owner and as a teacher. I demanded perfection from myself, even though it was unattainable. It is very real that leaders are often judged for the most challenging moments in their careers. As a society, we have come to expect perfection from our leaders and to accept little else, which in turn can diminish their humanity and create an environment that does not lend itself to vulnerability or transparency. So many leaders today lead from fear without even knowing it, especially in crucial times similar to the era in which we live. When something bad happens, leaders know that they will be under the microscope. This stops us from being bold, real and responsive to the needs of our community. It inadvertently causes us to reach for risk mitigation in high-stakes moments which can lead to a poverty of ambition and empathy. So how can we change this culture? What does creating a little space for our humanity in our leadership look like? How can we shift the dynamic while not ignoring the real concerns all leaders have for self-preservation? In a cancel culture, we cannot change the culture in a silo. How do we rectify this in our own leadership and practices? We can lend ourselves and others a little humility and a little grace.
Lastly, one of the most dynamic shifts I have experienced in my life is by leaning into trust. During one of the hardest moments I have endured, I had a friend who told me that I needed to learn to trust myself again. I was shocked. It was at that moment I realized that, along the path of learning and growing in my 20s, shrouded in self-doubt, I had forgotten what it felt like to rely on my intuition. So many of us, myself included, get overwhelmed during critical moments of leadership. A classmate in our program brought up the comment, “change what you do not feel peace about,” and it resonated. Each of us, in our hearts, knows what we need. We have access to the collective knowledge of what our patients, our colleagues, our teams and our communities need. But in order to gain access to that knowledge, to be open enough to learn and to listen, we must first relearn to trust ourselves, to pause and listen when our minds and bodies are talking to us.
Through work in leadership, I have come to realize that I did not need to seek the answers externally of who I am and who I am becoming. Those answers have always been written inside me, first and foremost. I just have to create calm enough to listen and that will unlock the next chapter of my life-long learning, of unfolding into the ideal leader that I know I can be.
Amisha Singh, DDS is a Denver native and loves living in beautiful Colorado. She serves as Director of Diversity and Inclusion Programming at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine. Dr. Singh is an active member of the American Dental Association, Colorado Dental Association and Metro Denver Dental Society. She was recognized as one of the 2018 Top 10 Under 10 ADA Dentists nationally. In addition, she serves on the CDA House of Delegates, on the ADA Dental Wellbeing Advisory Committee and as co-editor of MDDS’s Articulator magazine. And, is also a blogger and professional speaker who works with IgniteDDS.