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May 2013
Volume 34, Issue 5

The Importance of Leadership Development in Dental Education: A Student Perspective

Lior Aljadeff, BS; Rachel E. Krell, BA; Amy B. Lesch, BA; and Harold M. Pinsky, DDS

Practicing dentists employ leadership on a regular basis. The challenges of leading an office staff and influencing patient behavior requires daily leadership. Dentists who advocate for the profession, participate in research, volunteer in their communities, or mentor younger dentists practice leadership as well. Moreover, the dental profession is charged with the responsibility of caring for the oral health of the public. With this responsibility comes an obligation to consider society’s needs before an individual practitioner’s interests. Ultimately, strong leadership within dentistry is necessary to protect the profession’s ability to provide care for others and to allow the profession to maintain its autonomy.

Fulfilling these leadership responsibilities requires a number of skills, such as communication, independent learning, and vision casting. Leadership programs during dental school can serve to equip dental students with the skills they need to fulfill their inherent role as leaders. The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) prescribes a national standard of competency among all dental schools.1 However, while dentists are trained to be successful and safe clinicians, more emphasis should be placed on training dental students to become leaders in their profession. Recent publications have proposed that dental schools should consider implementing leadership development programs as a key part of their core curriculum. Such programs would satisfy CODA standards 1-3 and 2-18 and are essential to the long-term success, reputation, and autonomy of the dental profession.2-4

Elements Essential to a Valuable Leadership Program

Incorporating a formal leadership training program early in a dental school curriculum will encourage students to cultivate leadership from the inception of their professional development. Many models of dental education exist, and the emphasis of leadership training should continue to evolve based on the unique dynamics of each individual dental institution. However, the following common elements are worth considering as a basis for the development of effective dental leadership programs.

Adult Learning

Andragogy, as described by Knowles, is an educational theory that focuses on teaching students as adult learners.5 In contrast, pedagogy is an educational methodology that is instructor driven. Early childhood education is a classic example of pedagogy. Andragogy is based on the assumption that with age one becomes more self-motivated and responsible for his or her education. Although dental students are evaluated on a high standard of personal responsibility and motivation during the application process, further development of these skills is important to prepare students for lifelong independent learning and leadership. Thus, a leadership program that applies an adult learning model specifically for leadership training may prove valuable in developing student leadership skills, such as independence, self-guidance, and responsibility.

Structured Freedom

The model of structured freedom is a valuable format that applies andragogy in a leadership program. Structured freedom is defined as an environment that provides students an opportunity to explore their individual passions with minimal formal requirements and for which faculty serves mainly as a resource. As a result, the goal of a structured freedom environment is to facilitate the development of individual skills and individual perspectives on leadership. Therefore, while some structure and accountability is essential to ensure productivity, skills development is best achieved at an individual pace and must be assessed based on the accumulation of skills acquired throughout the program.


Time is by far the scarcest commodity for dental students. The high demands on dental students make it very difficult to explore creative interests. Still, the depth and breadth of knowledge that dentists must master is ever increasing. This makes it exceedingly difficult for administrators to make time for students to invest in personal development. Although time invested in personal leadership development may not produce results that are as measurable and immediate as those seen in the didactic curriculum, such investment is a fundamental element of any leadership program. Students need devoted time to fully explore the depth and breadth of their passions and leadership potential. Beginning the leadership program early in the dental school curriculum maximizes the amount of time available for leadership training.

Critical Thinking Through Discussion

Critical thinking is an essential skill that can be developed through peer discussions on topics; it allows individuals to share and explore their values and viewpoints. Facilitated peer discussion challenges biases and allows students to apply their vision of leadership in a productive way. Dialogue surrounding issues in the profession forces students to form a viewpoint and can have a lasting impact on their perspectives in the future.

Individual Projects

Students should use the structured freedom and time specifically devoted to leadership training in the curriculum to develop an individual project chosen by the student in any area of dentistry. This allows students to explore a topic of interest to them and creates a measurable form of productivity in the leadership program. It is important that students are able to exercise their individual freedom to explore their interests in a way that the rest of the curriculum may not always support.


The cornerstone of a successful leadership program is the mentor-trainee relationship, which can be developed through the execution of an individual project. It is important to encourage relationships that reach beyond the traditional classroom setting. Great mentor-trainee relationships offer a unique opportunity to experience the cyclical interplay between leading and following. Furthermore, leadership programs can facilitate students’ development as mentors by giving them opportunities to work with underclassmen during dental school. People who have been fortunate enough to have great mentor-trainee relationships are subsequently more apt to pursue opportunities to have such relationships in the future.

Individual Presentations

Becoming an expert on a specific topic and presenting to a group is a valuable skill that should be practiced in any leadership program. Among other platforms, public speaking is an efficient way of sharing ideas and should be used to develop students into effective leaders. Furthermore, presentations demand that students develop the skills of organization, communication, and scholarship.

Agents of Change

An essential component of a leadership program is giving students an opportunity to take small steps in developing the confidence and skills necessary to be agents of change. Leadership programs should prepare students to recognize opportunities for change and improvement around them. The experience that students will gain in this capacity will establish a strong foundation to build on as future leaders of the profession and valuable individuals in their communities.


Leadership education is essential in the overall development of a dentist. Ultimately, the long-term goal of a leadership program should be to help students begin exploring their leadership potential. All dental school applicants are asked about formal leadership positions during the application process. By creating leadership programs that incorporate the elements discussed in this article, schools can further develop the leadership skills they seek in their applicants. In doing so, dental education can play an important role in creating professionals who continually grow and develop as leaders long after graduation.


Lior Aljadeff, BS*
Dental Student, University of Michigan School of Dentistry, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Rachel E. Krell, BA*
Dental Student, University of Michigan School of Dentistry, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Amy B. Lesch, BA*
Dental Student, University of Michigan School of Dentistry, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Harold M. Pinsky, DDS
Private Practice, Ann Arbor, Michigan

* Co-lead authors


1. American Dental Association. Accreditation standards for dental education programs. Accessed January 23, 2013.
2. Taichman RS, Parkinson JW, Nelson BA, et al. Leadership training for oral health professionals: a call to action. J Dent Educ. 2012;76(2):185-191.
3. Haden NK, Ranney RR, Weinstein G, et al. Leadership development in dental education: report on the ADEA Leadership Institute, 2000-08. J Dent Educ. 2010;74(3):331-351.
4. Kalenderian E, Skoulas A, Timothé P, Friedland B. Integrating leadership into a practice management curriculum for dental students. J Dent Educ. 2010;74(5):464-471.
5. Knowles MS. Application in continuing education for the health professions. In: Andragogy in Action. Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass; 1985:80-100.

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