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The Courage to Lead

"I have learned from years of experience with people that when a person really desires a thing so deeply that he is willing to stake his entire future on a single turn of the wheel in order to get it, he is sure to win." —Thomas Edison

What is it that makes a great leader? I have often been asked to speak on the subject of leadership, first while coaching and consulting in corporate America and now years later in the field of dentistry. I'm always asked to be sure to include how doctors can become better executives and leaders in their practices. Essentially, what I'm being asked to do is discuss what doctors need to do to become the type of person who will bring his or her practice to the Promised Land of practice prosperity, harmony, and success. Quite frankly, the answer is that there is really nothing I can teach doctors to do that will ever make them more powerful and effective leaders.

The best leaders embody certain unmistakable traits of being, which they effectively demonstrate in all that they say and do, actions that make their goals and dreams a reality. It is true that there are the "born leaders" of the world—those who innately have these qualities and can adapt them to whatever venture they pursue in life, attracting great people and achieving success. However, this is not the norm, and until someone creates something like "The College of Napoleonic Dental World Domination," it probably won't be. So, it would be beneficial to be able to recognize and develop these leadership qualities, which I believe often lie dormant within all individuals and are simply occluded. As a result, these qualities become lost to people as they pertain to leadership ability.

My earliest example of this theory comes from my grandfather's war stories. As a child and through my early teen years, I never passed up the opportunity to sit with my grandfather and listen while he shared with me his experiences (and adventures) as an officer in the Italian Army during World War I. For those readers who may be a little weak on their history, Italy, during World War I, was an ally of the United States, France, and Britain in the conflict with Germany and Austria. It was the era of brutal trench warfare, suicidal charges into withering machine gun fire across a few hundred yards of open ground known as no man's land, poison mustard gas, and other human atrocities too extensive to list here. All of this occurred along a front of several hundred miles between France, Germany, and Austria that never fluctuated more than several miles in either direction for the entire duration of the war, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.

In the midst of all this was thrust a reluctant, 22-year-old recruit. This man was my grandfather, but what makes this story so unique was how he came to be a decorated hero in the service of his country and so highly admired and respected by his men. You see, my grandfather was in a remote Franciscan monastery when the war broke out in Italy. He was just about to take his final vows to become a priest, which basically meant he was all but set to spend the rest of his life in humble, devoted service as a missionary in the service of God. That was until the day the army came to call and drafted every able-bodied man at the monastery on the spot. At this point in time in the early 20th century of Italian society, "conscientious objectors" were not allowed. It was a simple choice: you serve your country or you hang for treason. Given these options, my grandfather decided he was no good to God dead and agreed to go, but under one condition: he refused to be put into a position that would require him to kill someone. Why he wasn't hanged on the spot for putting a condition on his military service he never knew. He used to tell me that he thought it was because he was either lucky or a soon-to-be man of the cloth. I think it was because he was the first person the army encountered who wasn't afraid to stand up to those in charge and stand up for what he believed was right and good. So the army assigned him to the medical corps.

Unbeknownst to my grandfather, as a medic he had been assigned to a position with one of the highest mortality rates in the infantry at that time. To make matters worse, he was immediately assigned to the front lines of the fighting. His job was to care for the dead and wounded before, during, and after combat. This basically amounted to tending to his fallen comrades in the heat of battle under heavy fire at all times. Remarkably, even at night he would insist on leaving the relative safety of his own trenches to crawl out into no man's land to pull the living and the dead back one at a time for proper care and attention, while being shot at most of the time. I asked my grandfather why he would do this when he didn't have to, and he told me, "It was a little safer than during the day." I think it was because he was dedicated to his men and to the sanctity of human life. He became widely known and respected amongst the men of his unit for his efforts and was eventually awarded the rank of lieutenant when casualities necessitated promotions.

Although he didn't set out to be a leader, he was now an officer. When he wasn't inspiring his men by his actions, he was working to improve their circumstances whenever possible. My favorite story dealt with his effort to improve the inhuman conditions of trench life, which reached such an unbearable state that the men could not even eat the supplied food because it was so foul and sometimes spoiled. My grandfather understood the importance of keeping up morale. Living in close, confined quarters under strict discipline was nothing new to him, coming from a monastery, but he would not tolerate being denied the decency of some palatable food for his men. So he wrote an anonymous letter—not just any letter, but a letter that would find its way all the way up to the high command of the Italian Army. Needless to say that when the superior officers in my grandfather's unit who were responsible for the men's welfare discovered it, they were not pleased. The high command came down on my grandfather's superiors like a ton of bricks. This was an act of treason to write such a letter, and again, a hanging was in order. However, when they assembled all the men, including my grandfather, to take handwriting samples to reveal the guilty party, they never did find out who wrote the letter. You see, my grandfather, with the forethought and good judgment that all great leaders have, knew this would happen. So he went to a friend in another unit, and his friend wrote the letter so it could never be traced back to my grandfather. The food got better and morale improved afterwards and no one in the unit ever asked who had stepped up on their behalf. They knew. That's just what a leader is supposed to do. My grandfather particularly liked this story, and like many of the others, it had his adventurous, risk-taking nature as its theme.

My grandfather has long since passed. The man who would have been a priest were it not for a war later managed to survive a nearly fatal wound from a hand grenade. He miraculously recovered from his injures and decided, after his military experiences, not to return to the monastery. Instead he traveled throughout Italy before coming through Ellis Island to reach the United States. Later, he met my grandmother, they had a daughter, and the rest is history.

I never did write the book he insisted I write for him about his life and times, but if I did, I would include a chapter on leadership. What is it that makes a great leader? A great leader is inspiring and motivates his or her team members to bring out the best in themselves as individuals. A leader displays effortless competence in all that he or she does. Many staff members have told me that they work for their doctors because they are the best at what they do, and the staff takes pride in the doctors' work. A great leader has persistence and strength in the face of adversity and will not let obstacles stand in the way of achieving his or her purpose in practice and in life. A great leader understands people and can communicate effectively and powerfully with them to achieve his or her goals. But most of all, a great leader has courage—the courage to make decisions, to confront situations that are not optimal, to take calculated risks for a higher purpose other than oneself, and to venture out where no one else would dare due to fear of failure and rejection.

It took courage to get where you are in practice as a dentist (it took courage to become a dentist in the first place). And it is courage that is needed to take you to the next level in your practice and beyond. Maybe you didn't sign up to be a leader when you opened your doors, but you probably didn't sign up to be a businessperson either. However, necessity demanded it. If you want to win in practice, necessity also dictates that you discover and develop those leadership traits within you to be a better, more effective, and courageous leader!

Mr. Massotto is the founder and CEO of Staff Driven Practices. After 10 years of business consulting success, he used his expertise in business and personal development to master their application in the dental field. ABC, FOX, CNN News, and Dentistry Today have nationally recognized him. He is the author of The 25 Surefire Ways to Destroy Your Dental Practice, a book that is the basis for a movie he wrote, produced, and directed in 2004. He is a frequent guest speaker at New York University School of Dentistry, Columbia University School of Dental and Oral Surgery, and The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, where he offers practice management advice and guidance to dental students. Mr. Massotto founded the Dental Resource Alliance and created the Dental Office Managers Association. He can be reached at (973) 812-2188 or by visiting staffdriven.com.

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