Though pain of serving as president is real, incisive leadership cuts to the bone of issues

May 1, 1996
Who in their right mind would ever volunteer for presidency of anything? After all, everyone knows the hours are long, the pay is lousy, taking time off from work for meetings is expensive, and it can be a thankless job.

Heidi Emmerling Jones, RDH, BS

Who in their right mind would ever volunteer for presidency of anything? After all, everyone knows the hours are long, the pay is lousy, taking time off from work for meetings is expensive, and it can be a thankless job.

Well, I guess I`m a masochist. I actually pursued the presidency of our state`s dental hygiene organization. I did not care about the drawbacks. All I could think about was contributing to the progress of my profession. I had grand visions: membership would increase, public relations generated, and resources expanded. We would engage in ambitious legislation. All without ruffling any feathers.

Unfortunately, I was naive. I was ignorant about the negative aspects of group dynamics. I was in for a crash course. I would be making decisions and taking actions that would rock the boat and jeopardize some friendships.

We`re buddies? Then why change the agenda?

Endangering long-term friendships was the hardest part for me. Some people were once so steamed they actually refused to travel on the same flight with me to an out-of-town meeting. Presumably, the protest was supposed to make me cave in to their demands or resign. I did neither. Even though my actions were necessary, it was still very painful and frustrating that, inevitably, someone would disagree. I, of course, wanted everyone to like me and approve of my leadership 100 percent of the time.

We also got bogged down with petty agenda items. Organized dentistry would have been quaking in its boots had it discovered what we were plotting. General supervision? Independent practice? Self-regulation? Dismantling the ADA? No. We were occupied over much more "serious" matters such as fighting a faction`s opposition to having students serve on reference committees. We argued over who would have the coveted job of typing the policy manual (Yes, some members actually clamored for this duty.). We counted pennies to ensure that the parliamentarian was only being reimbursed for one day`s meals, not two.

I later learned that petty items on the agenda are actually a means to divert energy and resources away from more important, albeit threatening, issues. A high point in my presidency was a visit with then-ADHA president Sarah Turner. She conducted a workshop on leadership for our organization, enlightening us to the universal phenomena of challenges within groups. These challenges, we learned, are certainly not exclusive to organized dental hygiene. We see friction, pedestal chipping, and hidden agendas in all groups - local PTAs, Girl Scout troops, and the American Dental Association.

Keep the sharp edge out front

I liken the experience of leadership to sharpening. Nothing is worse than a dull blade. An optimal edge, however, requires sharpening which, like leadership, can be time consuming, tedious, and frustrating. If applied improperly, an Arkansas stone can eat through your instrument in a matter of swipes.

This can happen to a leader if she allows frustrations and pettiness to affect her. But just think of the payoff: having an edge so sharp it makes the job seem almost effortless. After all, we can all relate to the perverse pleasure we get when - pop! Off comes a huge chunk of black calculus that we know had been there, burnished for years.

Sharp, incisive leaders don`t acquire their edge through dormancy and playing it safe. No. Dull leaders are the ones who merely go through the motions, glossing over issues to the detriment of all. Sharp leaders confront problems and take action. They risk insult and ridicule. The results can be well worth the risk - a sharp, confident leader and a strong, powerful organization.

Was my experience as a state president worthwhile and rewarding? I might have snarled and sneered with contempt at that question in the throes of it all. After all, I`d be less than candid to report there were no glitches. I did, however, appreciate the new friendships with colleagues not only in my state, but throughout the country. I also appreciate the board`s gesture of donating to a scholarship in honor of my service. Therefore, I answer the question differently now: It was absolutely a rewarding experience.

Our organization and the profession have made great progress. As a leader, I have played a small role in the success. And, how else besides being president, would I have had the opportunity to meet personally with our U.S. Senator and governor to discuss the profession, our organization?s support of national health-care reform, and our vision of the future?

So, yes, being a leader and contributing to our profession is very rewarding, much more rewarding than one could ever imagine. The experiences associated with leadership can make you much more incisive. Leadership allows you to cut through the massive deposits of ignorance, confusion, adversity, self-doubt, and other drudgeries. It is like discarding a worn-out, dull blade and replacing it with a totally new instrument. After all, should we not be motivated more by a strong, sharp influence like Irene Woodall rather than the dull, the petty? I know I will keep my edge and carve out my future. And I like big slices.

Heidi Emmerling Jones, RDH, BS, is a consulting editor for RDH and practices dental hygiene in Sparks, Nevada.