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Break away from the pack and become a leader!

Jan. 1, 2007
In dental hygiene we are presented with daily opportunities to be leaders; however, some hygienists think of themselves as employees...
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In dental hygiene we are presented with daily opportunities to be leaders; however, some hygienists think of themselves as employees with a job rather than leaders in a profession. Leadership demands service, sacrifice, and selflessness. In other words, leadership is influence.

As dental hygienists we have an amazing opportunity to provide influence, not only for our patients but also for our team members. The position of hygienist naturally lends itself to coaching and mentoring others because of our education, experience, and clinical expertise. What does it take to be a good leader and influencer? This article will explore specific principles dental hygienists can use to be influencers and leaders in our places of employment, regardless of where we practice.

When those around you are convinced you are doing everything in your power for their good and nothing for their harm, they will trust you. A good leader can be trusted, and that’s where leadership begins. People who are focused on their own interests and successes are not leaders. True leaders regularly demonstrate that they have the best interests of those around them in mind. If you can show team members you are watching their backs and have their best interests in mind, they will trust you. It might be something as simple as stating that Joan is an expert at helping patients with their insurance. Joan will trust you to say encouraging things about her to patients.

We have all heard the saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!” This is especially true with good leaders. A good leader will take the initiative, analyze the situation quickly, and take action. Leaders do not say, “Hey, there might be a problem here. Maybe someone should do something about it.” A good leader says, “Here is the problem, and here’s what we are going to do to fix it.” Good leaders are never passive and never ask others to do something they won’t do themselves. Leaders are diligent and hardworking, and will do whatever it takes to move the team forward.

Here is an example. You have finished for the day and can leave any time, but rather than walk out the door you stay. Without being asked, you clean the five trays that are stacked up waiting for processing. Because of this, Sue, the clinical assistant, won’t have to stay so late. You take the initiative and do what needs to be done.

A good leader uses good judgment. When making decisions that impact others, a good leader will never expose team members to unnecessary hardship. At times, the decision not to see a late-arriving patient can impact the rest of the team negatively, by leaving others to deal with the angry patient or locate a new appointment time in a packed schedule. Good leaders don’t make decisions based on selfish desire; rather, they make decisions based on the good of all.

When I was in my first year of dental hygiene practice, I worked for a dentist who told me, “I don’t expect you to know it all, but what you do know, you should know cold!” He gave me permission to speak with authority. A good leader speaks with authority, not with an arrogant attitude and certainly not with superiority or self-importance, but with the confidence of someone who knows the truth. To speak with the voice of authority, you must convey strength and power, and that cannot be accomplished unless you know what you’re talking about. Do the research, read your journals, and stay on top of the latest issues in the profession. Study, so that you can speak with the authority of someone who knows what he/she is talking about.

Much about the daily grind of dentistry can be discouraging, such as leaving with a full schedule and arriving the next morning only to discover four cancellations on the hygiene schedule alone. A leader strengthens others, making those around him or her better, more effective, and more motivated. The confidence you have in those around you can be a source of hope and strength when things go badly. It costs nothing to offer encouraging words to frustrated team members.

A leader is optimistic and enthusiastic. People don’t want to be around someone who is perpetually pessimistic. Optimistic enthusiasm creates excitement and hope that what’s going bad will soon turn around. True leaders see beyond temporary negative circumstances and keep their sights on the big picture of success. People around such leaders will draw courage and confidence since those traits are contagious.

Have you ever been around someone who didn’t see the forest for the trees? A good leader focuses on objectives, not obstacles. Some of us get so caught up in the urgency of the moment that we lose sight of the goal. You can be the force in your practice that brings the team back to the objective.

It is essential for a leader not only to maintain the right attitude and frame of mind, but to take the correct action. A leader empowers by example. A leader takes the “do as I do” approach rather than the “do as I say” method. If it is important for the practice to be timely in seeing patients, it is important for the team to be in the office early to make preparations and review charts for the day. Whatever is important to the culture of the practice, it is vital for a leader to adhere to those guidelines. Your actions should set an example and empower those around you to do the same.

Someone who leads cannot afford to vacillate or be timid in his or her communication. A leader is definite and decisive. A leader makes decisions proactively and communicates objectives in a clear, distinct way. A leader is definitive and keeps his or her word. While being definitive and decisive is critical, a leader must also be flexible. One of my favorite phrases and something my husband reminds me of often: “The flexible shall not be broken!” A leader knows when to change his/her mind. Everyone makes bad decisions, and a good leader knows when to adapt to circumstances as they change.

Leaders should be able to offer compassion, sensitivity, understanding, and comfort. A leader has empathy for others. When you are able to identify with another person so much that you feel what he or she feels, you are empathetic. A good leader will see things from another’s point of view. My experiences have taught me that sometimes clinical assistants and hygienists do not see eye to eye. When these situations arise, a good leader will have empathy and consider the other side first before taking action.

Leadership brings accountability. Others will look to a leader for answers and direction. A leader knows his/her limitations and is humble. Many leaders exude arrogance, cockiness, and egotism, which can actually be a hindrance to leadership. John MacArthur, author of The Book on Leadership, wrote, “A leader who forgets his own weakness will inevitably fail.” Ask for support from the team members around you who excel in specific areas and then publicly acknowledge their help.

While leaders must know their weaknesses, they must also be strong and resolute. A leader is resilient and quick to recover. Do not let daily circumstances cause you to waiver from your purpose. Instead, approach each day with zeal and persistence. Be durable and unwavering in your support of those around you by giving your team members the benefit of the doubt and always thinking the best of those with whom you work.

A leader is passionate. No true leader will ever be uncaring or apathetic. A person who is detached and indifferent will not be an influencer. Leaders, although passionate about their purpose, must never allow their emotions for the task to take precedence over the facts.

And finally, a leader is disciplined. Real influencers are those who exercise personal discipline and make the most of their talents. Why is discipline so important? “Discipline teaches us to operate by principle rather than desire,” writes MacArthur. Basically, it means doing the right thing even when you don’t feel like it.

Leadership demands service, sacrifice, and selflessness, not to mention organization and accountability. These are lofty goals, but not too lofty for the dental hygiene professional. I meet hygienists every week, in dental practices all across the nation, who are more than qualified to fill the shoes of a leader. Most of the dentists they work for are waiting for the leader in their dental hygienist to emerge. Most hygienists are willing to step up to the plate, but don’t know how to proceed. My hope is that this information will give hygienists some direction for 2007.

Ways to become more disciplined.1

Get organized ...

  • Put your desk in order.
  • Put away things that are out of place.
  • Throw away things that are useless.
  • Make your environment neat.
  • Make a list of priorities.
  • Schedule your time so that everything gets done, and start with the hardest and most undesirable tasks first.
  • Make a plan and follow through.
  • Use time wisely ...
  • Don’t procrastinate.
  • Work hard.
  • Don’t waste time.
  • Stay busy.
  • Be punctual.
  • Don’t allow unnecessary interruptions or diversions to deflect you from your real priorities.
  • Accept extra responsibility ...
  • When you see something that needs to be done, volunteer.
  • Help others whenever you can.
  • Focus your energies.
  • Once you start something, finish it ...
  • Budget your time.
  • Don’t overpromise.
  • Finish your incomplete projects before starting anything new.
  • Hold yourself accountable or have someone to be accountable to.
  • 1 The Book on Leadership by John MacArthur, Part 3, pages 154-156.Kimberly Miller, RDH, BSDH, is a senior consultant with The JP Institute. The JP Institute offers continuing-education training for the entire dental team. JP specializes in analyzing and refining practice philosophies, business systems, hands-on implementation of clinical skills, technology, and product integration. Call The JP Institute for information on its Mastership Certification Courses, Dental Spa Product Line, and In-office Consulting Services at (800) 946-4944 or visit