Dentistry Needs More Heroes

N. Karl Haden

Developing Tomorrow’s Courageous Leaders

By N. Karl Haden, PhD
President, Academy for Advancing Leadership

Saving Private Ryan was the last movie I saw with my father, a World War II veteran. As the movie opened, the camera was like a pair of eyes, providing a soldier’s perspective from aboard the amphibious troop transport. When the gate dropped, we heard the rapid rhythmic zipping of bullets followed by thuds each time one found its mark. With my field of vision engulfed by the big screen, the sounds of battle coming from around the theater, and seeing men pinned in place by machine gun fire, my pulse raced over the impossible situation. Absorbed in the action by the mesmerizing production, I remember thinking, “How do we get off this beach?” I realized then, as I do now, that my vicarious experience, however intense, was hardly a shadow of what those courageous soldiers experienced on Omaha Beach.

That was a different time, and the heroes the 20th century required are different from those we need today. But the quality that defines them both is the same: moral courage.

In 2020, we found ourselves on a new but equally deadly battlefield. Images of physicians, nurses, and other health care providers putting on personal protective equipment reminded us of unheralded warriors strapping on a different kind of armor. The enemy they fought has killed over one million people in the U.S. alone.1 Over 3,600 of them were health care workers who died of complications from COVID-19 during the first year of the pandemic. I remember pondering a montage that circulated online — faces of new heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice, not simply because they took an oath, but because of compassion and courage.

Dentists were among the pandemic’s health care heroes, but did the profession as a whole show the kind of leadership the crisis demanded? While individual dentists responded to the COVID-19 challenge — administering tests, delivering vaccines, and distributing anti-viral medications — some have argued that the dental community was not mobilized appropriately in the war against the pandemic. If there is a next time, oral health professionals will likely be asked to serve on the frontlines. That will take courage.

The Call for Heroes

During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were countless unnamed health professionals who set their self-interest aside to care for others. While some of these heroes received recognition, none of them sought it. These heroes followed their hearts and accepted the personal consequences that flowed from their actions. We need more virtuous leaders like them to take on the challenges ahead.

Courage, Character, and Leadership: A Brief History

Courage is a character strength, or as the ancient Greeks called it, a virtue — a trait or habit that contributes to one’s personal wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. The concept of virtues dates back to Aristotle and emerged separately in Confucianism, Buddhism, and other philosophies and cultures. Today, virtues continue to figure prominently in discussions of character and leadership, and courage is viewed as an essential virtue for effective leadership.

Leaders need a variety of specific competencies to succeed. These include deep knowledge of their field, negotiation skills, the ability to build teams and networks, and an understanding of how organizations work. Most traditional leadership programs emphasize developing these competencies, but character-based programs take a broader approach. Rather than focusing strictly on what leaders need to know and do, these programs challenge future leaders to ask: What kind of person should I be? What is the purpose of my leadership? What kind of workplace, organization, or community do I aim to create?

Neither surprisingly nor coincidentally, the virtues we expect in our leaders often coincide with those we expect in professionals. We expect competency and character. The American Dental Association (ADA) captures this distinction nicely in its Preamble to the ADA Principles of Ethics and Code of Professional Conduct. It states: “The Association believes that dentists should possess not only knowledge, skill and technical competence but also those traits of character that foster adherence to ethical principles. Qualities of honesty, compassion, kindness, integrity, fairness and charity are part of the ethical education of a dentist and practice of dentistry and help to define the true professional.”3

Developing Leaders for the Future at NYU Dentistry

While tremendous strides have been made in improving the oral health status of Americans through scientific breakthroughs, many are left without access to basic dental care. Dental benefits remain separated from other health care coverage and out of reach for many individuals and families.

In addition, the rigorous curriculum for dental students focuses predominantly on basic science and clinical care, but most learn little about the complexity of the dental and general health care systems of which they will soon be a part. NYU Dentistry aims to change this situation through new programming and academic offerings on oral health policy and leadership.

NYU Dentistry’s Leadership Education Portfolio looks beyond clinical competency to the virtues “that help to define the true professional,” as outlined in the ADA’s Code of Ethics. We do this, in part, by advising our students to choose their future employer wisely, because the employer’s values and expectations will influence how the graduate will practice. As they take on leadership roles in dental practices and other settings, we urge them to be courageous. Recent history tells us they may be pressured to place profit above the wellbeing of their patients or even their own health. Moral courage can spur them to do the right thing for patients and society, as all professionals should.

As Dean Bertolami has noted, “The future of dental care, dental education, and oral health research is uncertain, complex, and ambiguous . . .  making the need for adaptive, character-based leaders throughout the dental profession greater than ever before.”

Character-based Leadership

In his guest editorial, Dr. Rick Valachovic outlines the components of the leadership education opportunities available to students at NYU Dentistry. Accordingly, I will not rehearse them fully here, but will instead highlight the curricula of the NYU Dentistry Leadership Track and the Dental Student Leadership Institute (DDSLI), which give students the opportunity to develop the character traits, skills, and networks that will help them become successful leaders in dental practice, education, organized dentistry, public health, and other areas of health care. (See Tables 1 and 2 below.)

Table 1. NYU Dentistry Leadership Track

One-hour, bimonthy webinar series grounded in character-based leadership. Topics explored in 2022-2023 include:
  • Theory and Practice of Leadership
  • Opportunities to Lead in Dentistry and Oral Health
  • An Introduction to Character-based Leadership
  • Values in Action: Assessing Character Strengths
  • Is there Room for Humility in Leadership?
  • How Do Great Leaders Overcome Challenges and Failure?
  • Is Honesty Really the Best Policy?
  • How to Build Organizations Where People Succeed
  • Are You a Wise Leader?

Table 2. NYU Dentistry Dental Student Leadership Institute (DDSLI)

D1 students may apply for this competitive, three-year program which provides character-based leadership development. Participants benefit from:

  • Small group mentorship
  • Participation in summer retreats/workshops/internships
  • Team building
  • Meetings with oral health leaders
  • Project planning and group work with DDSLI peers

Program Curriculum

  • Orientation retreat for accepted students
  • D2: Managing Complexity in Health Professions Leadership
  • D3: Leading the Way for 21st Century Oral Health
  • D4: Collaborative Leadership for Evolving Health Care

A core tenet of character-based leadership is the creation of workplaces where people can flourish, something that Dr. Leo Rouse emphasizes in his interview. Beyond fair wages, creating workplaces where employees flourish includes providing opportunities for them to contribute their unique interests and talents, fostering growth through professional development, providing employees an appropriate amount of autonomy, and offering them the chance to contribute to a purpose that transcends the bottom line. With this leadership aim in mind, the first cohort of DDSLI Scholars was asked to write an essay on what constitutes a “best place to work.” They identified organizations committed to the wellbeing of their employees, their communities, and, in some cases, the world. Their essays also captured the Scholars’ reflections on leaders they admired and their own career aspirations. Below are some examples of what Class of 2025 students had to say about their experience in the DDSLI.

“Acts of service are crucial to a healthy workspace because they set the foundation for why we practice. By promoting and modeling volunteer efforts, I am hopeful that my practice will develop individuals who care for and routinely serve their community.” — Naomy Kaplan 

“The greatest measure for success is through the success of the people around you.” — Rami Habib

“As a leader, I aim to create an organizational environment that values and invests in employee development by providing opportunities for training and professional growth, as well as by setting clear expectations and providing regular feedback.” — Sam Al Safarjalani

Such comments affirm the value of these leadership initiatives to our students, and, ultimately, to the profession and the public we serve.


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