Does leadership matter?

Nov. 14, 2014
Communication skills and the ability to allow input into a dental practice's vision are contemporary characteristics of a leader

Communication skills and the ability to allow input into a dental practice's vision are contemporary characteristics of a leader

BY Linda Meeuwenberg, RDH, MA, MA, FADIA

How many times have you been concerned that leadership is lacking in your office, dental hygiene component, community, or even family? Ask yourself how you define leadership, and then maybe you can understand why you feel concerned about it. There are many definitions, and a plethora of authors have offered their definitions of the elusive concept of leadership. defines leadership as "(noun) the position or function of a leader, a person who guides or directs groups, ability to lead, an act or instance of leading, guidance, direction." President Dwight D. Eisenhower defined leadership as "the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it." The King James definition in the Bible states, "Where there is no vision, the people perish."


Other articles about dental leadership


I posed the question, "What does leadership mean?" on my social media sites. Both dental professionals and others responded. Here are some examples that reflect most responses.

• Brainstorming a successful plan and setting up a way to successfully meet the plan

• Uniting together for a common goal

• A group of people being led to a common goal by a person with vision and communication skills

I think we can agree that a leader is someone who can influence and guide a group, whether it is in our career, personal life, community, or nation. Leadership styles are varied and can be dynamic depending on the situation. For instance, if you come upon someone needing CPR and you follow the guidelines, you will quickly direct people, point to a person and tell the person in a firm manner to call 911. A sense of urgency in this instance requires swift and direct communication skills.

On the other hand, if you're working as a team toward a common goal, you need to develop a relationship with each team member and gain consensus to move forward to achieve a vision. Let's face it; we do not follow people we do not like. Relationship-building skills are definitely an advantage in a leadership position. The good news is that many leadership skills are teachable. Leadership matters because it reduces chaos and provides structure.

Many experts agree that leadership is changing in the workplace as we move toward more cohesive teamwork models. Dr. Miriam Kragness, developer of the Dimensions of Leadership Profile™ used to assess leadership style, said, "Traditional male model, top down management systems are being replaced with empowered work team systems to accomplish organizational goals." Dr. Kragness developed the profile for Inscape Publishing to give definition and structure to the concept of leadership and to eliminate confusion between acts that represent leadership and those that represent management. She notes that leadership and management are two different entities.

Leadership skills of dental hygienists

If dental hygienists practice according to the "Four Agreements" outlined by Miguel Ruiz

Speak with integrity and say only what you mean. Avoid gossip and use words in the direction of truth and love. Don't we do this with our patients? We were drawn to dental hygiene to serve others and improve the oral health of the public, and this requires excellent communication skills. We have to work in team environments to accomplish our goals.

It's easy to get caught in the trap of gossip about others in the office. Gossip speaks more about the person gossiping than the target of the gossip. Others notice and most do not like it. As a consultant and clinician, I have witnessed this firsthand and have seen how destructive just one person on a team can be. Yes, I have even participated before I was enlightened. Avoid it at all costs and walk away when you sense it happening. Do not participate!

What others say is a projection of their own reality. Not taking things personally is a challenge for many of us, especially females. We're socialized to be peacemakers. It's upsetting when someone says or does something we perceive as hurtful because we take it personally.

I heard a speaker challenge the audience with this statement, "What others think of you is none of your business." That struck me as odd. The more we discussed it, the more I realized that people speak and act out of their reality and needs, not mine. I have to remind myself of that fact to stay centered. I remind myself when I feel the least bit uncomfortable that it is none of my business how others think of me. It changes my reaction. This is not easy, especially if you work in a toxic environment. Sometimes we need to leave those environments because it's necessary to free ourselves from negative people. It takes just one in an office to upset the entire team. Unfortunately, negativity is contagious.

Communicate clearly with others, and ask for clarification to avoid assumptions. I conduct a paper-tearing exercise in my seminars that illustrates the complexity of communication. I give each participant a sheet of paper and instruct everyone on how to fold and tear the paper. I do not allow participants to ask questions, and I ask them to keep their eyes closed throughout the exercise. Most participants feel uneasy at not being able to see how I'm folding and tearing, and they're uncomfortable folding and tearing without asking for clarification.

This exercise is an eye opener when we compare our papers after the exercise. Many different patterns emerge because I did not allow questions. I set up a one-way communication pattern instead of a two-way dialogue, as this is often how we communicate. Not only do we need to ask questions to clarify requests, we need to allow time for others to question us, especially patients and coworkers.

Do our best. I hope we all are striving to be lifelong learners and are continually perfecting our craft. If I were still practicing what I learned in school, I would be doing an extreme disservice to my patients. We used only single-ended instruments in the 1960s, and we had only one curette, a universal. Look at the changes in instrumentation alone over the years. We have so many instruments to choose from that, when used properly, allow us access to specific anatomy that a universal curette did not. We polished with a porte polisher and coarse pumice mixed with mouthwash, and we asked our patients to brush with a stiff toothbrush to stimulate the gums. Such antiquated techniques caused harm to the hard and soft structures of the mouth.

I have taken hundreds of CE courses (before they were mandatory), acquired additional degrees, and read several journals. Doing my best is a core value for me, and doing our best requires continual learning. We will never be done with our education. Belonging to your professional association, attending conferences, visiting exhibitors, and reading journals are all wonderful ways to improve techniques and do your best. There is no shortcut. The person who is continually striving to be the best through continual learning will emerge as the leader.

Dr. Kragness goes on to note that management is what people do with the authority to delegate work and accomplish objectives with the help of others; whereas leadership is what people give to those they decide to follow. It is part of a relationship and helps others determine where everyone in the group goes. She describes it as an in-and-out process between people. It requires that some people follow while others lead, and requires that the process be fluid and subject to change. The leader may step back and allow a follower to step into the leadership role, similar to the way geese fly. The first goose in the "V" flight pattern breaks the head wind, and when it becomes tired it moves to another position in the formation that is less tiring, and a new leader emerges.

This model of leadership asserts a distinct difference between leadership and management. I have been in situations where managers were poor leaders. I assume many of you have experienced the same situation. We assume the owner of the practice (usually the dentist) is the leader. However, often it is another team member that takes the role of leader. Conversely, the owner of the office may be an excellent leader with passion and vision, while the office manager takes the role of managing the details of the practice. In order to have followers, the leader must be liked and respected. Many times that is not the case when an appointed manager assumes he or she is the leader of the practice.

What traits are perceived as likeable? Communication plays the largest role in likeability, whether as a clinician or leader. Both nonverbal and verbal communication skills are important. For instance, good leaders possess a persona, have a way with words, appear fearless, and speak directly while holding good eye contact. They demonstrate respect for others and allow conversation rather than dominating the interaction. These are teachable skills. I have delivered many seminars teaching professionals leadership skills and how to be likeable by using relational communication skills to improve their practices. Communication is essential for establishing a leadership role, as are self-assessment tools such as the Leadership Profile or StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath.

Let's look at another philosophy - The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz, who writes:

• Be impeccable with your word

• Don't take anything personally

• Don't make assumptions

• Always do your best

Imagine our world if everyone practiced these four principles (see related sidebar). If we apply these traits to a leader, we can see how it would be easy to follow someone with these principles. I know many registered dental hygienists who follow this philosophy in their daily practice; therefore I believe hygienists are capable of being excellent leaders.

So does leadership matter, as stated in the title of this article? Absolutely! A leader is a visionary who brings structure to an organization. A leader will have clear communication skills and allow input into how the vision will be actualized. When team members feel involved, they are more likely to feel empowered to contribute to the organization and help the leader achieve the vision. Without a vision and a plan, there is chaos. Very few people stay in a chaotic environment. If everyone works together toward common goals, there is shared success-building cohesiveness, which is important for continued growth, success, and satisfaction. Be flexible and bend with the wind, and you may be surprised how easy it is to become a leader when necessary. But knowing when to follow is just as important. Keep a positive attitude in all your relationships within your organization, whether you're a leader or a follower. Most importantly, do not be afraid to ask for help when you find yourself in a leadership role.

A key component of leadership failure occurs when the leader tries to do everything. Know your limitations and strengths. There are some excellent tools to help you discover your skills. I highly recommend the following books:

• "Emotional Intelligence 2.0" by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves

• "StrengthsFinder 2.0" by Tom Rath

• "Help Is Not a Four Letter Word" by Peggy Collins.

I suggest the last book because dental hygiene is a predominately female profession, and we sometimes struggle to ask for help. You may find the first two books helpful in pinpointing your skills and assisting in developing areas that need improvement.

Initiate a discussion about leadership with your team. You may learn that leadership has many definitions, and that the team will not agree with them all. This discussion will clarify with your team and help build a participatory atmosphere, which can only improve your team. It may also provide clues as to why you may be frustrated with the current leadership. You may also learn that no one but the leader knows and understands the vision for the organization. How can a team work to achieve the vision when they don't know what the vision is? It must be clearly articulated and shared. Finally, I think there are numerous opportunities for hygienists to rise up as leaders in the office and in the organizations they serve. We have natural ability from being leaders with our patients as we guide them to improved oral health and wellness.

Linda Meeuwenberg, RDH, MA, MA, FADIA, is an internationally recognized speaker and best-selling author. As founder of Professional Development Association, Inc., she has presented hundreds of empowerment seminars and CE courses. She published a short story, "Violets in the Windows," and an essay, "Where Have All the Women Gone" as part of her reinvention. Visit her website ( to learn more about her and the books/articles she has written. She can be contacted at [email protected].