What Navy SEALs Can Teach You About Leading a Dental Practice

October 26, 2016
Joe Hannan

Retired Navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin are authorities on leadership development. Their recent book, Extreme Ownership, takes leadership lessons from the battlefield and applies them to business.

Since the branch’s creation in 1962, the US Navy SEALs have been stalwart on some of our nation’s most hotly contested battlefields. Aside from being among the most elite fighting forces in the US armed services in terms of their stealth, precision, and discipline, there is something else that sets the SEALs apart: their leadership skills.

Over the years, the historically quiet professionals of the SEAL teams have begun to open up, sharing their skills and experiences. Out of the many lessons to be gleaned, their methods of developing leadership are the most significant for business leaders, such as yourself.

One of the more recently published books, Extreme Ownership, by retired SEAL commanders Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, reveals tactics for successfully leading in the business world that were forged on the battlefield. Here are 3 key concepts, extracted from the book, that have helped Willink, Babin and the SEALs develop winning teams that have literally altered the course of history. These concepts can be applied directly to creating and sustaining an elite team within any business—dental practices included.

Prioritize and execute: Imagine the following scenario. You’re conducting a routine checkup on a longtime patient who you know has a history of smoking, and you notice that there is a small, white patch developing on the roof of his mouth. Could it be oral cancer, you wonder. Just then, one of your longtime hygienists ducks in and says he needs to speak with you immediately. It’s the middle of the day, and your office is already running behind schedule. He wouldn’t trouble you unless it were serious, and it is: he needs to leave immediately because his wife was just in a car accident. You glance into the waiting room to see the frustrated faces of several new patients. You suddenly recall the bad reviews that are piling up on Yelp these days.

This is, indeed, an exaggerated nightmare scenario. But what would you do to navigate your way out? Willink and Babin in Extreme Ownership advise that you prioritize and execute. Stress often robs us of our ability to differentiate between what is important and what is essential. The key is rehearsing practiced mental detachment from stressors in order to see problems more clearly, Willink and Babin write. To properly address the situation described above before it spiraled out of control, you would have to decide what were the essential problems to solve and in what order. You’re also going to need the help of your office team, which leads us to …

Decentralized command: Some leaders, even if they are surrounded by capable people, think that every decision needs to be made by them. Imagine if you found yourself in the situation above, and you were entirely alone. Thankfully, you aren’t. You have a team of skilled, capable workers that help you run your practice. According to Willink and Babin, proven team members at all levels must be empowered to make decisions. This enables you, the leader of the practice, to gain what Willink and Babin call “altitude” and survey the entire situation without getting bogged down in the details.

The patient in the chair who might have oral cancer, it’s on you as the DDS to order the necessary diagnostic procedures and advise the patient. But what about the rest? A brief discussion with your second-best hygienist apprises her of the situation. You make it clear to her that she must take point on seeing the remaining patients through professionally and expediently. The frustrated patients: A quick word with your receptionist sets her in motion. She begins to explain to them the situation in as much detail as possible, letting them know exactly how long the delay will be and explaining what will be done going forward to ensure that their needs are met in a timely manner. She offers them the option of going on a standby list for appointments, if they can’t afford to wait. And the Yelp reviews: Your office manager is all over this. She has reached out to the reviewers to get more details on what went wrong, and is divising a plan to ensure that patients’ needs are better met going forward. She’s also developing a patient loyalty plan to further boost satisfaction.

But what if your team isn’t responding as it should? That leads us to …

Check the ego: Imagine the opposite of what was just described. Instead of pulling together as a team to help the patient in the chair, cover for the hygienist who must leave, inform the waiting patients, and develop a strategy to address ballooning patient dissatisfaction, everyone fails to act. Your receptionist is playing solitaire. Your office manager has been on a two-hour lunch break. Your second-best hygienist is angry now that she will have to take on more work. Are these truly bad employees? Whose fault is it if they are?

The answer, Willink and Babin say, is you are at fault. The mantra of, “There are no bad teams, only bad leaders,” is at the heart of Extreme Ownership. Solving this problem requires you to keep your ego in check, to accept, with humility, that you need to do more to build up your office staff into a strong team. Their failures are essentially your failures. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, but it’s also the best medicine for the situation. By owning the problem openly to your team, you are inspiring them to similarly own their portions of the problem, Willink and Babin advise. The challenge, Willink and Babin write, essentially becomes the opportunity to build a stronger team.

These are just some among many actionable strategies you could put in place to improve your practice immediately. For a complete picture of the leadership strategies the SEALs use to win, pick up a copy of Extreme Ownership, or listen to Willink’s podcast.

Related Content:

News