I’ve realized my main challenge as Director of our team here in Uganda is helping each of our team members develop and take ownership of their leadership capabilities. If I’m not doing that, I’m failing our team and stalling our overall ability to reach our vision. People will continue to suffer without access to transformative, quality, compassionate dental care. Plain and simple.

Everyone on our team is expected to lead. Everyone has to understand our overall vision and goals and how their responsibilities help us turn that vision into reality.

It’s not enough to only know what we do. We have to understand why we do it!

Before we hire anyone here in Uganda, we are crystal clear during the interview process:  members of our team are not only responsible for their daily work duties; they are also responsible for developing ownership of those tasks and teaching/leading others toward the accomplishment of our vision.

If our work ends with us, we have failed.

Not only are we responsible for teaching/leading new team members, but we obviously need to be leading our patients towards health. Each of us — front desk staff, dentists, dental public health officers, assistants — need to lead our patients away from pain and suffering and into the freedom of quality and sustainable oral health.

We aren’t just giving oral health education or cleaning teeth or placing fillings. We are using those skills as a way to guide and transform the lives of our patients.

That’s where the magic happens.

That’s also where the challenge comes.

We aren’t working with robots, and we shouldn’t try to turn humans into robots either (earth-shattering revelation, I know). I’ve learned this the hard way in developing our team. I’ve caused myself a lot of frustration expecting our training protocols to produce results within a certain timeframe. My ignorant brain thought just by developing a system (a necessary thing, by the way) and hammering it into people over and over and over again, we would build an army of dentists, public health officers, and assistants ready to change the world!

This might some obvious to everyone reading this, but… That does not work. No matter how good the system.

It doesn’t work because people are complicated. I’m complicated. You’re complicated. All of us are. It’s an occupational hazard of simply being human.

What we have realized in leadership here in Uganda — with each other and our patients — is the importance of meeting each other right where we are. Ask questions. Challenge your own biases. Try and understand the point of view of the person sitting across from you. Learn about them: what is their social life, family life, educational background? Develop a relationship.

If we just come in and start lecturing a patient about oral health without any understanding of their story, we might as well be talking to the wall.

That doesn’t show love. That doesn’t move people.

In the same way, if I come in and train people how to do their job without a basic understanding of who they are — their individual hopes, dreams, and fears — I might be able to get them to perform a task for a time, but it won’t be sustainable. It won’t last. It’s a fool’s errand.

Transformation requires relationship. We have to meet each other where we are.

Ideas too far removed from a person’s frame of reference are hard to accept. We need to always remember this when leading, teaching and serving others.

Likewise, we must also hold ourselves accountable to expand our own frames of reference. This allows us to serve more people in varied ways more effectively. If we don’t expand our frame of reference, we are demonstrating that we don’t really care about other people. If we don’t expand our frame of reference, we are showing that we only care about leading and serving when it’s convenient for us.

That right there is a hard but freeing truth, because when we fully grasp and implement it, our hearts open to the world around us — and everyone in it.

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