The Path to Leadership

Sitting down to write this requested article about "my journey" fulfills a lifetime goal: to share with other women dentists some of the pain and joy on the path to leadership.

Jul 1st, 2004
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Sitting down to write this requested article about "my journey" fulfills a lifetime goal: to share with other women dentists some of the pain and joy on the path to leadership. I work as a prosthodontist in a great private practice one day per week, but the majority of my time is spent in administration. This year I have the honor of being the first woman president of the American College of Prosthodontists. Women are approaching a time of equality in dental education and specialty boardrooms, but it wasn't always that way.

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Going back in time, I remember some encouragement along the way: "Why don't you go up to the dental school? They are looking for strong minority candidates. You'd be great." Or "Why don't you apply for a specialty program? You're an excellent candidate." Or "You've been saying how we haven't revised our curriculum in 15 years. How'd you like to drive the process for change?" Or "When you go into that boardroom, don't be afraid to talk. What you have to say is just as important as someone who has been on the Board for years."

In my history, I also remember some gender insensitivity. It's hard to believe today, but people actually said these things: "We'll put you in charge of this committee. Women are better at cleaning. It will be perfect for you." Or "It must be hard to do what you do. I would imagine that everyone would be hitting on you all the time and not taking you seriously." Or "In applying for this position, you must realize that you will have all men working for you. Doesn't this concern you that as a woman you may not be able to get their respect?"

How do you handle gender insensitivity? Smile and consider the source. Pick your battles. Sometimes you can let it go, knowing it's not important. If it is important, kindly explain why it was inappropriate or seek advice from someone else who can help. Your courage will change this behavior.


Many have contributed to what makes all of us who we are. A good mentor is a lifelong partner. Most of us older women had men as mentors, because that's all there were at the time. And they were great. From my physiology professor, Dr. Weber, at Georgetown, who allowed me to take an examination early on the honor system because I was working 40 hours per week (he taught me scholarship and ethics) ... to the colleagues who helped me through a difficult job experience (they taught me perseverance and that it wasn't my fault) ... to the excellent leader of my current position at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, Dean Lonnie Norris (he teaches me about leadership and fairness) ... they all contributed to whatever success I have, and I am grateful.

What brought me to Boston and TUSDM was love — not for education, but for my husband, Dr. Arnie Rosen. He continues to be the grounding for my overcharged, excitable, Type A behavior. He always reminds me that it is all really part of a big game to be worked out and played well, but still a game not to be taken too seriously or at the expense of others.

At TUSDM and in the American College of Prosthodontists, I have been fortunate to find a family of scholars, educators, and leaders who surpass any I have encountered along the way. It is most wonderful in that there are now many women in leadership positions with whom to network and from whom to learn. These are environments in which men and women work together to nurture, make decisions, and forgive each other, for we all make mistakes. It is important that we recognize our errors, apologize, and then move on to work together for whatever part of dentistry that we seek to impact.

We're not all successful every day. But if each day, you get one or two things crossed off your list; you make a co-worker, student, or colleague feel good about something they did; you do the right thing; and you listen when you really feel like talking, then it was a good day.

Have a good day!

Nancy S. Arbree, DDS, MS
Dr. Arbree is a diplomate of the American Board of Prosthodontics and a fellow in the American College of Prosthodontists, where she currently serves as president. She received her dental school training at Georgetown University School of Dentistry (1977), GPR training at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Gainesville, Fla. (1978), prosthodontic and maxillofacial prosthodontic training at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City (1978-1981). Currently, Dr. Arbree is associate dean of academic affairs and professor in the Department of Prosthodontics and Operative Dentistry at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine where she has been teaching "Complete Dentures and Implant Dentistry" since 1981. Dr. Arbree also has a private practice limited to prosthodontics in downtown Boston.

How do you become a positive mentor, which is a component of every leader?

Remember some of this advice that I myself have not always followed! But when I have, it seems to work.

Be supportive of other women. Women are not automatically supportive of each other. Go out of your way to mentor and establish professional relationships with the women who work for and with you. It will be well worth it.

Help make people feel good. In general, people don't like confrontations that make them uncomfortable — even if you're right! Work hard to "bite your tongue" and find common ground. Have your heart-to-hearts with close friends, not acquaintances.

Compliment and reward good behavior. You may have to do this more often with female team members. Traditionally, they have been used to dealing with males.

Never compromise your core values, your family, or your health. At the end of the day, that will be what saves and nourishes you. If you don't rest sometime, you're no good to anyone.

Try not to take it too seriously. Women worry too much about everything. Be sensitive and caring — those are the best things about us — but don't let it ruin your day. Write the worry down on a piece of paper, crunch it up, and throw it away. Exercise it away if you can.

If you want to be a leader, take a public-speaking course and a leadership course. You need to be exceptional at getting people to listen. Leadership doesn't come naturally. Courses will help you to recognize your high and low strengths (Gallup, Inc.). You will need to use all of your strengths. You need more energy to tap your low strengths.

Smile and count to five before reacting. Try not to judge but to embrace. You can comment later after you've made the person receptive to your comments.

Lead as a team and don't be the "boss."

Don't bring a list of problems to a meeting without a longer list of solutions.

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