Years before Dr. Brent Larson chaired two AAO councils and advanced in Midwestern Society of Orthodontics and AAO leadership – including serving as AAO president in 2018-19, he became interested in leadership as a teenager. A high school athlete in Minnesota, he played hockey and other sports and was an unofficial team leader.

“I began to realize that leaders need to take consistent steps to get people around them to work toward a common goal,” says Dr. Larson. “Since then, I have worked to keep building on what I learned about leadership playing sports.”

Dr. Larson’s next major learning experience in leadership came in the military, while he was first an Air Force officer serving as a general dentist at Plattsburgh Air Force Base in New York. After becoming an orthodontist, he was chief of orthodontics and quality assurance coordinator at Torrejon Air Base in Spain. 

“In the military, you do not get a choice of who you have on your team,” says Dr. Larson. “My military experience helped me realize that you can work effectively with people and build a great team, even if you did not select the team members. The formal leadership training that I had as an officer, combined with simple trial and error helped me understand how to influence people’s motivation to contribute toward a common goal.”

After leaving the Air Force, Dr. Larson became an orthodontic faculty member at the Mayo Clinic, where he received leadership training focused on continuous improvement processes. Application of what he had learned helped him become a successful teacher who was inducted into the Mayo Clinic Teachers’ Hall of Fame before he left the academic world and spent eight years in full-time private practice.

Dr. Larson engages participants with in-depth content on how to be an effective leader as the AAO instructor for Module 6 (Inspiring Leadership Principles) of the Wharton-AAO Mastering the Business of Orthodontics program.* The co-instructor for the module is Professor Nancy Rothbard, chair of the Wharton School of Business Management Department.

“I have always found that applying consistent leadership principles works well in any environment, from academic leadership and teaching, to team management when I opened my practice, to leadership in organized orthodontics,” says Dr. Larson, who is now a professor and the director of the Orthodontics Division at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry.

Self-Development as a Leader

While common leadership principles can be utilized effectively across many situations, Dr. Larson acknowledges that those applying the principles are unique individuals.

“People have to be who they are,” he says. “Individual leadership style can also encompass one’s culture or other aspects of background, but no matter how you present your perspective, it is critical to develop a vision of what you want your team to accomplish, and to communicate that vision effectively to everyone.”

Interacting with students in the Wharton-AAO MBO program has helped Dr. Larson learn about common leadership challenges faced by today’s young orthodontists as well as established practitioners seeking ways to take their practices to the next level.

“One frequent major challenge is how to find the right balance between being a leader and being a friend to the team,” he says. “Many orthodontists today want to be friendly with their teams, but it is important to consistently maintain a delineation of your role as the leader. Balancing those two roles is not easy for everyone.”

Other orthodontists may prefer to step back from the team relationship and have a practice manager be more involved with the staff.

“If that works in a practice, that’s great, but being too detached may mean that you sacrifice some of the benefits of being a more personally engaged leader, such as developing mutual trust and gaining awareness of each team member’s strengths,” says Dr. Larson.

“Resources that can help an individual develop as a leader include the Wharton-AAO MBO program as well as leadership programs offered by AAO constituent organizations and by non-orthodontic organizations,” adds Dr. Larson. “Our specialty has many talented people who have not yet had much opportunity to learn about leadership and to practice skill development. Taking the time to do so may enhance both success and satisfaction in practice and in other areas of life, where these skills are also valuable.”

* Learn more about the Wharton-AAO MBO Program and register now by clicking here. The next MBO cohort begins September 13. In this member-exclusive, 8-week program, explore eight essential orthodontic practice management topics with a diverse group of your peers and experts including private practice owners, consultants, educators and AAO leaders – along with a world-class expert on each topic from the Wharton School of Business faculty. Enjoy flexible learning on your schedule and earn 18 CE units.