Leadership when there’s no one following you

The changing face of dentistry means there are fewer opportunities to be a practice-owning boss. So how can young dentists develop as leaders?

18 December, 2018 / management
 Alun K Rees  

“Leadership” is a current big buzzword in dentistry. If you read the often confusing guidelines that pour out of the offices of the “powers that be”, one would think that every dental professional in all situations was akin to a general taking their troops into battle or getting prepared to confront the All Blacks. I can’t see Joe Schmidt basing his team talks to the Irish rugby team on the GDC’s “Standards for
The Dental Team” nor it becoming compulsory reading at Sandhurst.

I am not trying in any way to diminish the role of leadership in both the personal and professional elements of our lives, but I do believe there needs to be a less “in your face” role model.

In the landmark book, Good to Great, Jim Collins and his team compared the high-profile, big personality leaders who make headlines and become celebrities, with the actual “good to great leaders”. The latter are self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy individuals who, with their blend of humility and professionalism, make huge differences to their organisations.

With the rise of corporate ownership of dental practices, there are fewer opportunities for associates to become principals. In the UK these have shrunk to 40 per cent of what they were a decade ago. The traditional leadership role of the practice-owning boss is being replaced by something much less obvious.

Accompanying the changes has come a tendency for increasing isolation, loneliness and a rise in mental health problems. Feeling that you are “just” a cog in a machine with little say in the running of an organisation and no input into decisions that affect your working life, contribute to stress. Many young (and not so young) dentists, especially those working in the NHS, have described themselves as feeling like “clinical cubicle workers”.

Dentistry can be a lonely profession. Working in a small, very sensitive area of the body with conscious patients who are lying prone while you undertake complex work is highly demanding. Having to consider the legal and business requirements of what you are doing plus complying with often insensitive regulations makes the job even harder.

How do young dentists develop themselves and their leadership skills? Who and how can they lead?

Work on yourself

Unless you are grounded and sure of yourself, you are unlikely to succeed or enjoy your success. On a personal level, routinely take some time to examine what your beliefs are, determine your core values and decide how your life can follow them.


Defined as “the reliance on one’s own capabilities, judgement or resources; independent”. Self-reliance is based on the fundamental belief that you can, and should, change and control your circumstances. In the ideal world we would all be in control of our own destiny at all times, but in reality things don’t always work out that way.

“in an Ideal world we would all be in control of our own destiny at all times,  but in reality things don’t always work out that way”

How should we behave when things are out of our control?

In his book Man’s search for meaning, Viktor Frankl described his experiences in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. He concluded that “between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”. Never forget that you always have a choice in how you respond.

There will be times when things are out of your control, so work on setting an example in everything that you do whether that is seen or unseen. One definition of a professional is doing the right thing when no one is watching.

Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy in which the main goal of the leader is to serve.

The leader shares power, puts the needs of the employees first and helps people to develop and perform as highly as possible. Although, on first thought, this concept can appear alien, it has proved itself in practice.

In addition, as the characteristics of servant leaders include listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion and commitment to the growth of others, this would fit with the traits of good dentists.


Self-esteem is described as a person’s overall sense of self-worth or personal value; in other words how much you appreciate and like yourself.

Insufficient self-esteem can leave
people feeling deflated or even depressed. Too much, as seen in narcissistic personalities, can damage relationships.
It is dangerous in a dentist and can result
in hubris, or arrogance.


Your individual resilience must be strong. Everything I have described contributes to our personal resilience, or “bouncebackability” as it has been described, an essential for weathering professional and personal storms we all experience in our lives.

To conclude

Leadership comes in many forms, not always the obvious. To be a leader in your professional, social and family communities takes an investment of time and energy in yourself first and then others.

The effort that you put into becoming and remaining a leader will be repaid not only in professional success but also personal satisfaction and happiness.

Alun K Rees BDS is The Dental Business Coach. An experienced dental practice owner who changed career, he now works as a coach, consultant, trouble-shooter, analyst, speaker, writer and broadcaster. He brings the wisdom gained from his and others’ successes to help his clients achieve the rewards their work and dedication deserve.


Tags: boss / leadership / practice-owning

Categories: Magazine / Management

Comments are closed here.

Scottish Dental magazine