Active Leadership


The Secret to a More Productive Practice.

Dentists often ask me, “What is the secret to a more productive practice?” This question reminds me of the poem, “The Secret of the Sea,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882). Longfellow wrote:
“Wouldst thou,”—so the helmsman answered,
“Learn the secret of the sea?
Only those who brave its dangers
Comprehend its mystery!”

The above-referenced stanza is about experience and knowledge, but also about leadership. The answer to the “secret of the sea” invariably boils down to leadership and, as the poem reads, “Only those who brave its dangers comprehend its mystery.” For too many dentists, the definition of leadership is one of position rather than one of action and persistence.

We had the opportunity to discuss leadership in today’s dental practices last July at the 2016 Arrowhead World Symposium—an event focused on becoming more effective and productive leaders. Since one of the keynote speakers was a retired U.S. naval captain, the event had a decidedly nautical theme, which was “Take Command: Charting a New Course” (see article, “Take Command,” Aesthetic Dentistry, Issue 44, Fall 2016).

Over the two-day event, speakers shared a number of key insights that I believe have the power to transform any dentist into the kind of dynamic leader who stands out in terms of quality work and financial productivity. My presentation was entitled “The Helmsman.” Some of you might wonder why I didn’t choose a title like “The Captain” instead of “The Helmsman”—as the captain is probably most often associated with leadership in a nautical context.

The reason I chose the metaphor of the helmsman is because I believe it represents one of the most overlooked concepts related to leadership. For those who are not nautically inclined, a helmsman is the person who steers the ship. The helmsman holds the wheel and makes the necessary corrections to keep the ship on course and unimpeded by unexpected and changing currents. This is the person who translates the captain’s vision into the daily actions that allow the destination to be reached safely and efficiently.

I owned a boat for many years, and during that time I acted as both captain and helmsman of the craft. This is how dentists should approach leadership in their practices—they should both set the course and take an active role in keeping to it. It isn’t enough to have a vision of what you want your course to be, you must also take the wheel and translate vision into daily action.

Now, to be clear, I don’t espouse micro-managing your team members. You shouldn’t be doing the tasks and roles that you have delegated to your team. Quite the contrary, you should allow them to own the spheres of influence that their roles require, as long as they deliver the results that are needed to stay on course.

One simple exercise to ensure that your leadership style is equal parts vision and action is to do the following. Take out a sheet of paper and create two columns. In the first column, write down some phrases that represent key components of your vision (for the “captain” side). In the second column, write down actions required to stay true to that vision (for the “helmsman” side).

Below is an example of this exercise, using a few common phrases that I’ve heard over the years:
Notice how the lists in the two columns complement one another. Indeed, a great leader is equal parts vision and action. If you think a dental degree automatically bestows effective leadership skills on dentists, then your view of leadership is limited.

True leadership is a daily effort to take active measures that keep you and your team on course to reach your vision. It isn’t an easy task, and at times it requires you to work at the edge of your comfort zone and beyond. Have courage! Put yourself in uncomfortable situations and the secrets of effective leadership will become second nature as your practice and your experience in dentistry inevitably continue to grow.

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Dr. Dick Barnes is the leader in practice development for today’s cosmetic practice. A graduate of Marquette Dental School, he began his general dentistry practice in Rialto, California. As his practice, skills and reputation grew, he became known as one of the world leaders in cosmetic dentistry. In addition, Dr. Barnes taught at Loma Linda University and the University of Southern California, at their respective dental schools.


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