“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 numerous times 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 is what do doctors need to do to become the type of person who will bring their practice to the Promise Land of practice prosperity, harmony, and success. Quite frankly, the answer is 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 which have their actions, goals, and dreams become 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 to attract great people and achieve 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 which are simply occluded, and as a result, become lost to people as they pertain to leadership ability.

My earliest experience proving this theory, I learned from my grandfather’s war stories. As a child and through to my early teen years, I never passed up the opportunity to sit with my grandfather and have him share with me his experiences (and adventures) as an officer in the Italian Army during World War I. For those of you reading this who may be a little weak on your 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 which never fluctuated more than several miles in either direction for the entire duration of the war at the cost of millions 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 to go to fight. Now at this point in time in the early 20th century of Italian society, there was no such thing as “conscientious objectors” allowed amongst the populace. It was a simple choice: You serve your country or you were hanged for treason. So given these as the 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 to the powers that were at the time, he never knew. He used to tell me that he thought is 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 they’d encountered who wasn’t afraid to stand up to them and not sacrifice his principles of what he believed was right and good. So, they 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, they immediately assigned him 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 because 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 causalities 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 that reached such an unbearable state that the men could not even eat the food they were supplied because it was so foul and sometimes spoiled. My grandfather understood the importance of keeping morale up. Living in close, confined quarters under strict discipline was nothing new to him coming from a monastery, but being denied the decency of some palatable food for his men, he would have nothing to do with. So he wrote an anonymous letter – not just any letter, but a letter that would find its way all the way up to the Italian Army High Command. Needless to say that when his superior officers in my grandfathers unit who were charged with taking care of the welfare of the men found out about it, they were less than 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 line up to take hand-writing samples to find out who the guilty party was, 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 near death wound from a hand grenade, miraculously recover from his injures, and decided not to return to the monastery after what he had experienced. He instead traveled around all of Italy before leaving for the United States and coming through Ellis Island like so many other immigrants did during that time in the great history of our country. Later, he met my grandmother, they had a daughter, and the rest, as we say, 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 team to bring out the best in themselves as individuals. He displays effortless competence in all that he does (many staff have told me that the reason they work for their doctor is because he’s the best at what he does, and they take pride in his work) . A great leader has persistence and strength in the face of adversity, and will not let barriers and obstacles stand in the way of achieving his purpose in practice and in life. He has an understanding of people and can communicate effectively and powerfully with them to achieve his goals. But most of all, a great leader has courage – the courage to make decisions, to confront non-optimum situations, to take calculated risks for a higher purpose other than oneself, and to venture out where no one else would dare fear of failure and rejection.

It took courage to get where you are in practice as a dentist (hell, 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 for having to be a leader when you opened your doors, but you probably didn’t sign up for having 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!