Why wisdom is critical to dentist CEO success


Most dentist-entrepreneurs focus on accumulating knowledge, but wisdom is the secret to a successful future.

Many dentist-entrepreneurs are earnestly engaged in building large managed group practices. They believe the more knowledge they can amass, the more success they will experience as a CEO.

They religiously go to numerous programs about the business of group practice and attend the heavily touted industry conferences. They hire and listen to reputable pundits and advisers. They engage in frequent discussions with their peers. They read books like “Traction” and “Scaling Up.” They have an unquenchable thirst for more and more knowledge. 

They believe the greater the tonnage of knowledge, the greater their success. Regrettably, it doesn’t always work - you need more than knowledge.

Dentist-entrepreneurs stalwartly strive to accumulate more data and more information on running their business: “What’s the optimal corporate model and its infrastructure? Who and when do I hire? How do I generate my third round of financing? What are the best KPIs, the best SOPs?” They invest heavily in IT and swim with the data currents. They always seek to know more. They need more and better data and more robust software so they can do their spreadsheets and relate their data.

But success still eludes them. Why? Because they lack wisdom. Knowledge will only get you so far. Knowledge is not the same as wisdom - not even in the same ballpark. Without wisdom, these very smart professionals eventually flatline, falter or fail. You can’t get there without wisdom.

“Knowledge is flour, but wisdom is bread.” - Austin O'Malley

Wisdom and knowledge: The difference

Wisdom and knowledge are both recurring themes in business and spiritual literature. Wisdom and knowledge are related but not synonymous. The dictionary defines wisdom as “the ability to discern or judge what is true, right or lasting.” Knowledge is “information gained through experience, reasoning or acquaintance.” Knowledge can exist without wisdom - you can be knowledgeable without being wise.

Knowledge is knowing what to say, while wisdom is not only knowing what to say but how and when to say it. Wisdom is understanding the person you’re speaking with at both an intellectual and emotional level. Wisdom fosters intuitive astuteness of who others are and how best to communicate with them. Knowledge listens to what is said to add to the repertoire of information and data. Wisdom hears this as well, but wisdom also hears why the person is saying it.

Wisdom enables hearing the implicit, not solely the explicit. Wisdom enables a listening beneath the words. Knowledge listens from only a factual level, to add to what it already knows, while wisdom listens both factually and empathetically.

Knowledge is about facts, data and information acquired through study, research, investigation, observation or experience. Wisdom is the ability to distinguish and judge which aspects of that knowledge are true, right and lasting.

People typically define knowledge as the confident understanding of a subject that has the potential to be used for a specific purpose. Wisdom, on the other hand, is the ability to make correct judgements and decisions.

“The man of knowledge believes only half of what they hear, a wise man knows which half.”   – Roshi Suzuki

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Wisdom thinking

Wisdom is your silent partner, governing which body of knowledge and relationships to pursue. Wisdom includes both the “doer” and the “deed,” while knowledge focuses only on the “deed.”

The source of knowledge is learning, education, science, and reasoned and logical thought. The source of wisdom is self-knowledge, intuition and personal experience. Knowledge occurs in your head, while wisdom occurs in both your head, gut and heart.

The path to wisdom is through self-discovery. Wisdom requires honest self-examination and self-reflection; assessment of your personal and family histories; understanding of your own and others’ priorities and values; knowing your strengths and weaknesses; and acknowledging your vulnerabilities. Wisdom is understanding there is no absolute and that life and business exist in fields of ambiguity. Wisdom knows there is no right answer.

In my experience, most dentist-entrepreneurs are obsessively focused on accumulating more and more knowledge. Each wants to be the “smartest person in the room.” It’s an illusion that the more they know, the more successful they will be. Knowledge alone does not generate access to people’s thinking and motivations. Knowledge alone does not provide access to the future, only to the past and the present. Wisdom provides access to the future.

"Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" - T.S. Eliot

Wisdom is beyond what is known

Thinking outside the box may be a cliché, but it’s essential to being wise. Wisdom moves beyond confronting a problem on its own terms - it surpasses the limitations of the problem. Wisdom creates new possibilities and generates more ideas and innovations; for example, imagine the wisdom of Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame.

Wisdom understands that success is not dependent on the latest “winning formula,” and although it’s important to understand these formulas, it’s not sufficient. Wisdom realizes actual solutions are created, not copied.

When people challenge themselves, disrupting established patterns, then wisdom can be obtained. Wisdom understands the phrase “beginner’s mind” because wisdom presses people to go even a little bit beyond what has already been done, venturing into new territory.

“Knowledge is proud that he has learned so much; Wisdom is humble that he knows no more.” – William Cowper

Exclusivity of wisdom

In our industry, as in the world, the wise are an exclusive group. Wisdom may not be difficult to attain, but any given industry tolerates only a small percentage of wise people. In the dental industry, if every professional embodied wisdom, wisdom wouldn’t exist. Wisdom involves challenging the industry’s conventions. Think of those who challenged the norm like Steve Jobs, Sir Richard Branson or Howard Schultz. Wisdom in many ways is revolutionary. Although most want to be wise, few make the necessary investment.

“How much better to get wisdom than gold, to get insight rather than silver!”  Proverbs 16:16


In my work with dentist-entrepreneurs, who declare they intend to become CEOs, I listen to all the information they have accumulated - the facts, the data, their “truths” based on what they’ve learned and can recite. They are deeply knowledgeable about the business of group practice and have volumes of information about it. Their knowledge consists of facts, data, percentages and models they’ve acquired through study, research, investigation, observation and conversations. But this does not constitute wisdom, which is the “difference that makes the difference.”

Wisdom is critical to CEO success. Accomplished CEOs can discern and judge which aspects of knowledge are true, right, lasting and applicable to their situation. They deftly apply wisdom to every facet of their business. They realize that wisdom is a much deeper kind of knowing; a knowing of the meaning and the reasons why something’s or someone’s value is beyond what its function is to fulfill. Knowledge understands the pieces, while wisdom understands the whole and can put the pieces together.

“Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.”• Albert Einstein

Recommendations: Take the Wisdom Online Assessment

To find out your level of wisdom, take this free test. I strongly suggest you be brutally honest and not try to figure out the “right” answer. How wise are you?

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