The Articulate Dentist - A Blog by the Metro Denver Dental Society

Leadership: You Know When It’s There

 This editorial is part of a special series on Women in Dentistry for Women’s History Month. 

By: Dr. Terri Tillis and Ms. Lisa Hinz

It can be elusive. Yet, you know it when you see it. And, you know the feeling when you experience it. When it is present in an oral healthcare setting, a feeling of camaraderie and satisfaction is created among team members resulting in greater productivity. Patients can feel it also. What is the ‘it’ being referred to here? ‘It’ is leadership. And what do feelings have to do with it?

Feelings matter. Patients can rarely evaluate the quality of the dentistry provided. However, they usually know within the first visit whether they want to return. They also know whether they will be referring friends and family to you. Patients aren’t basing these decisions on the quality of the recently placed restorations or on the crown margins. They are deciding based on how they feel in the presence of you and your team, and that is impacted by the presence of leadership in your setting.

Feelings are closely aligned with emotions. And emotions impact purchasing decisions. You may not often think of your patients as purchasers. They are indeed purchasing a service from you. Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman claims that 95% of purchasing decisions are driven by subconscious urges, of which emotion is the largest.1 Many decisions are not as logical as we might want to believe.

For example, when deciding about purchasing a new car, have you compared features like gas mileage and reliability and still bought the one that excited you or came in a color you loved, even if the statistics indicated that you should buy the other one? When we buy a new outfit is it because we don’t have clothes or because of the excitement we feel from the look, feel or design of the garment? We need to generate that same element of excitement and emotion in our patients and team to stay in our practices and to refer their families and friends.

As a dental student, you may not recall a curricular emphasis on learning leadership skills, however, the American Dental Association actually mandates it, and it was included in the curriculum Standard 2-19 of the Commission on Dental Accreditation Standards for Dental Education reads, “Graduates must be competent applying the basic principles and philosophies of practice management, models of oral health care delivery, and how to function successfully as the leader of the oral health care team.”2

Often leadership and management are viewed synonymously in dental settings, when in fact they are very different. The focus of leadership is on people, while management focuses on systems. Many dentists without confidence in their leadership skills abdicate by deciding to hire a very competent office manager. While this individual is essential, being the leader in the office should not be part of the office manager’s job description. It is worth noting that leadership isn’t just the responsibility of the dentist. Leadership lies with everyone working in the dental setting. Each person has an opportunity to bring out the best by how they show up each day, through support, encouragement, positivity and effective communication. Each team member can exhibit leadership qualities that support the whole.

Leaders establish direction for their organization and inspire others to follow that direction to generate positivity and productivity. A beneficial outcome of such an influential leader is greater satisfaction of team members who want to remain on the job because they are growing and achieving mutual goals. When team members frequently move on to different employment because they aren’t motivated and don’t feel appreciated or empowered, the bottom line of the practice is impacted. The cost of frequent staff turnover is a financial and energy drain on you and the remaining team members, creating stress for everyone.

Has your team established a belief system and values and goals that serve your patients? This is critical because the success of organizations like a dental setting is predicated on their common set of values and beliefs. Team members need to buy into this set of common values. This underscores the necessity of a mission statement that defines these values and beliefs and ideally is created with contributions from the team. If you don’t currently have a mission statement that has been embraced by the team and communicated to your patients, the task of creating one can comprise your next several team meetings. You will want your mission statement to reflect the impact you desire for the practice. Once developed, your mission statement becomes your guiding light. If decisions and practices that you consider incorporating down the road do not align with your mission, they should not be adopted. Be sure to display your mission statement, perhaps on a placard so that it is easily visible to both patients and the team.

While some people may seem to be inherently strong leaders, actually they may have learned these skills. One mustn’t be born with leadership skills to exhibit them. Strong leadership skills can be learned. Leadership researchers and experts, Kouzes and Posner have written several books with the goal of teaching others how to lead. These authors feel strongly that you don’t need to be a ‘born leader,’ but rather that leadership can be taught, studied, and practiced with excellent outcomes. Much of their work centers around five practices of exemplary leaders.2

  1. Model the Way: Leaders set an example for others to follow utilizing interim goals enabling people to achieve small wins.
  2. Inspire a Shared Vision: Leaders envision the future, creating an ideal image and believing they can make a difference. With quiet persuasion and passion, they help others to see these possibilities.
  3. Challenge the Process: A constant quest for innovative ways to improve and change the status quo.
  4. Enable Others to Act: Contributions of others are recognized which inspires further hard work and determination. Others are empowered to grow and achieve.
  5. Encourage the Heart: Acknowledge feelings, celebration, and a sense of community and care.

An effective way to assess one’s leadership skills is to complete what is called a 360 review. This tool allows various stakeholders in the leader’s orbit to rate a person on their leadership competencies. The raters, whose comments are provided anonymously, can include team members, peers, managers and even patients. Local leadership coaches can offer this 360 version of the Energy Leadership Index Assessment. Besides evaluating 36 leadership competencies, it also captures how an individual perceives and approaches work and life. Being coached on these perceptions can be transformative for one’s relationships, confidence level and leadership skills.

A skilled leadership coach can be an invaluable asset for evaluating and improving leadership styles. Elevating and then improving the leadership quotient in your setting can increase the bottom line, support team camaraderie, and return that ‘feel good’ attitude to you and your patients. Don’t practice without it!

1. American Dental Association Commission on Dental Accreditation. Accreditation Standards for Dental Education Programs.
Accessed December 23, 2022 at: 
2. Zaltman, G. How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Markets. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2003.
3. Kouzes JM, Posner BZ. From The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership. San Francisco: Pfeiffer Wiley, 2003.

Dr. Terri Tilliss is Professor Emerita at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine where she was in the Dental Hygiene and Orthodontics Departments. She also taught patient communication skills to dental and medical students, publishes in the dental literature, and presents on a variety of related topics.

Lisa Hinz, CEO of The Confidence Track, offers assessments and leadership and coaching programs that focus on turning professionals into great leaders.

The Articulate Dentist is a blog by the Metro Denver Dental Society, providing members with insight into the dental industry, practice management tips, tech trends and best practices as well as Society news and updates.