Lead by example: Nothing will inspire and motivate your team more


More than 200 years ago, a man in civilian clothes rode past a small group of tired and battle-weary soldiers. They were digging what appeared to be an important defensive position. The leader of the group wasn’t making any effort to help. He just shouted orders and threatened to punish the group if the work wasn’t completed within the hour.

“Why aren’t you helping?” asked the stranger on horseback.

“I’m in charge! The men do as I tell them,” said the leader. “Help them yourself if you feel so strongly about it.”

To the leader’s surprise, the stranger got off his horse and helped the men until the job was finished. Before he left, the stranger congratulated the men for their hard work and approached the confused leader.

The stranger said, “You should notify top command the next time your rank prevents you from supporting your men. I will help provide a more permanent solution.”

It was at that moment that the now-humbled leader recognized that the stranger was President George Washington, and he was taught a lesson he would never forget.

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Frequently, we are asked to work with practices to get “the team” up to a certain level of proficiency. The doctors often describe their own confusion with the team “not getting it.” My wife, a therapist, often describes the phenomenon of a child being referred to her for treatment. The child has “this problem” or “that problem” and is considered the “identified patient.” Then, after conducting family meetings, it is determined that the parents are dysfunctional, inconsistent and unclear of expectations so that the child never has a chance to become successful in navigating their own life.

The same is true in our dental practices. As the leader of our practices, it is the doctor’s responsibility to develop a clear vision of the purpose of the practice. Then they must introduce systems under which all will function, and they must make available training to accomplish tasks successfully.

This will empower team members to perform at a high level. Even more importantly, is the intangible responsibility to lead by example. When we ask team members to change through education or coaching, we must realize that change is difficult ... for everyone. Change takes people out of their comfort zone. When the dental team members see their doctor/leader making changes and adjustments, as well, it inspires them to “go with the flow” because “if the boss can do it, so can I.”

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Building an extraordinary dental team takes guts: the guts to trust the team, to treat members with respect and to go to ridiculous lengths to find, keep and nurture people who care enough to make a difference. One of the surest ways to accomplish this is to understand that leadership is enhanced by a willingness to be flexible. There is no strength in inflexibility of the leader in the eyes of the team.

When we have worked with practices, the greatest jump in productivity and the biggest improvements in culture have occurred when the doctor or doctors reach an epiphany that they have been the person, or persons, holding back the practice by not changing. Understanding that “being conservative” may not truly be in the best interest of the patients, thatempowering a team may free the doctor up to produce more, and that delegating responsibilities enables others to accomplish them more precisely and timely, are great hurdles for most dentists to clear.

The burden of stress can be lessened by developing greater trust in an empowered team. The fish said to the monkey, “I would like to be your friend.”

The monkey responded, “ I think that’s a fine idea. Come up and sit with me in the tree.”

What do you think is the prospect of this friendship developing?

Related reading: Have a clear vision, overcome diversity and run a successful dental practice

Leadership is not about sitting above others in an ivory tower. True collaboration is never built without adequate give and take. Several years ago, I had the good fortune to attend a leadership conference where one of the speakers was Robert Gates, who

had been the U.S. secretary of defense and CIA director under administrations of two presidents from different parties. He is a true statesman and leader. At this conference, he was asked what he thought was the most important quality of a leader. His response was, “Take great care of the people who are beneath you.” There seems to be a trend from Colonial times all the way to the present.

Leadership means bringing people together in pursuit of a common cause, developing a plan to achieve it and staying with it until the goal is achieved. Becoming a leader seems to be more about stepping out of comfort zones, sometimes even showing a little vulnerability and making a sincere effort to connect with the unique values and passions of others. Where have any of us been trained on how to lead a diverse group of people who have varied personalities and skills to accomplish both clinical and non-clinical skills effectively? It is perfectly OK for a doctor to admit that the skills to lead do not come natural. (Look at the personality types that seem to be commonly drawn into becoming a dentist.) When the leader shows a desire and will to learn and improve, in the process, it can inspire employees to develop values and passions that are totally in line with theirs.

Of course, some of the responsibilities of leading our teams include establishing a professional work environment, providing structured feedback, delegating and empowering our teams and being compassionate each and every day toward them. One of the best tools to lead is to consistently be generous with praise and appreciation. Nothing that we do has a greater potential to change someone’s life than to make them feel appreciated. Be conscious of the effect that this encouragement has in creating motivation in the members of our dental teams.

The lesson of the parable of “The Monkey and the Fish” is that we all need to quit monkeying around. We have to break down the barriers and mindsets that are getting in the way of our relationships with the people we work with. We must change if we expect them to do the same. We must realize that the dental team members who work with us are much more influenced by leaders who they trust and who lead by example, and this must become the foundation of our approach to leadership.

For more information about improving your leadership skills, please call 516-599-0214 or send an email to SmilePotential@aol.com.

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