Should dentists learn leadership skills?

Should dentists learn leadership skills?

If you scanned the list of the greatest leaders of all time — Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, George Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr. — you may notice there are no dentists on the list.

Does that mean a dentist can’t be a great leader? No doubt, those names were born to inspire others, but what about the rest of us? Can leadership be learned if those skills aren’t given to us at birth?

“Leadership can always be taught,” believes Kirk Behrendt, CEO and Founder of ACT Dental. “To what extent remains to be seen.”

“I think their success is perpetuated as they tap into their leadership skill,” notes Dr. Mark Montgomery of Amplified Dynamics. “They evolve in their leadership over time. There are a lot of dentists who are not good leaders when they are in their twenties and thirties. When they turn forty, then they start to get in touch with what it really takes for their patients and their team. I think the forties is when they really start to come into their own in terms of developing the necessary mindfulness, empathy, vulnerability, and curiosity that it takes in order to manifest the type of environment or culture they want to have.”

Genevieve Poppe, CEO of Poppe Practice Management also feels that even those fortunate enough to be born with strong leadership qualities can have a lot to learn.

“There are personality types that are naturally more attuned to being a leader or personality types where people generally follow them,” says Poppe. “They’re outgoing, they’re likeable, they’re clear communicators. But I think even those personality types benefit from learning how to use those natural traits in a way that truly leads people, that truly creates accountability in their team, that truly creates an open and honest work environment where people communicate with each other. So, I think there are people more naturally wired to it, but I think most people have to learn how to really do it.”

What does it take for dentists to learn leadership?

Learning leadership can be easier if dentists have good coaching, systems, accountability, and feedback.

Leadership coaching

A dentist’s path to greater leadership is one that should not be traveled alone.

“You have to surround yourself with people who think well,” says Behrendt. “We’re just human beings. We’re not designed to succeed on our own. We need the help of great people, great team members. Show me a sports team that exists with one great player. They need the help of great coaches, great communities, great thinkers, great everything.”

But it’s not enough to open the doors of your practice to a coach. You also have to open your mind to learning.

“The challenge is that if you think you know it all and you don’t really want coaching, you just want validation, all learning stops and you are now the lid on the organization,” adds Behrendt.

Accountability through people and systems

For some practices, the learning process is a one-time process. For the majority, however, the learning never ends and some level of accountability is necessary to keep offices from regressing to their old ways.

Poppe states, “I think there are people who always need some outside accountability, just like there are people who always need a personal trainer, even though they’re fit and they know how to do the workout. They always have a personal trainer, because that’s how they feel accountable to it. That’s how they don’t cheat or let themselves off the hook. I’m proud when I graduate a client. I like to let somebody move on, but a lot of my clients will at least work with me quarterly as just a gut check, just a refocus. That they don’t need me all the time but they do recognize that they need a refocus and that sort of quarterly interval.”

While ongoing coaching keeps dentists focused on leadership growth, organized systems also give them a clear structure to follow so bad habits don’t creep back in.

“Human beings left alone or ungoverned will always slip,” observes Behrendt. “That’s important to know. You need a system of accountability. I like the word operating system. Creating an operating system allows you to be human and not slip back in reverting into bad habits that created these problems for you in the past. I encourage you to have a system, a checklist, and operating system in which you can be you but things get better over time and we stick to the rules and make this place a better place every year.”


“You have to give people tools to review results and see action from their communications and see results from their communication quickly,” explains Poppe. “If you don’t, it just feels like too long of a climb and people lose faith. When you can start to have something as simple as a productive team meeting, where one week later a handful of to-dos got done, and we saw a difference in this thing, and we were able to discuss that this was off track and it didn’t hurt anybody’s feelings. That’s an immediate, tangible thing.”

The results of sticking with it are almost always worth it, and it will be obvious when a dentist reaches a higher level of leadership.

Get the leadership edge for your dental practice

How are your leadership skills affecting your dental practice? Find out where you stand and how you can improve with The Ultimate Guide to Leadership for Dentists.

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