Everyday leadership: make your mark

Shannon Mesenhowski Blue Cross Animal Hospital, 5328 Lyndale Ave S, Minneapolis, MN 55419.

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Elizabeth A. Nunamaker Biologic Resources Laboratory, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL 60612.

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Melissa C. Austin-Gundel Western Illinois Veterinary Clinic, 3910 Wisman Ln, Quincy, IL 62305.

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Erin D. Casey Parkway Veterinary Clinic, 5743 Burke Centre Pkwy, Burke, VA 22015.

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Libby Todd Liberty Animal Hospital, 3810 River Run Dr, Birmingham, AL 35243.

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Abigail J. Bowers Risius and Associates Veterinary Service, 112 E LeClaire Rd, Eldridge, IA 52748.

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Dustin Brown Animal Medical Center of Midwest City, 8701 SE 29th St, Midwest City, OK 73110.

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John T. Feutz Princeton Veterinary Hospital LLP, 725 E Broadway. Princeton, IN 47670.

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Christopher Gargamelli Animal Emergency Hospital of Central Connecticut, 588 Cromwell Ave, Rocky Hill, CT 06067.

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Micah Kohles School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, NE 68583.

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The current world of veterinary medicine is a challenging place, but each obstacle provides an opportunity to create profound change. Every individual is capable of leadership, and even though the process of leadership is unique to each person, basic principles of leadership can be taught and learned. Understanding leadership and assuming a leadership role are important for veterinarians because, as Kouzes and Posner,1 authors of The Leadership Challenge, have stated, “When the leader in everyone is liberated extraordinary things happen.”

The AVMA created the Future Leaders Program after identifying a need to help veterinarians develop leadership skills early in their careers and increase their involvement in organized veterinary medicine. We were selected as the inaugural participants in 2011 and our year-long program will come to completion during the 2012 AVMA Annual Convention in San Diego.

As part of the Future Leaders Program, we were instructed to work together as a team on a focused project that could be expected to have an impact on organized veterinary medicine. During our early discussions, we identified the workplace, society, and organized veterinary medicine as the main areas where leadership is important for veterinarians and where development of new skills that can promote leadership and drive change is critical. For our project, therefore, we elected to create a series of personal leadership development tools that can be used by all members of the veterinary profession.

While working on these leadership development tools, we began to focus on questions such as why leadership is important, how one defines leadership, what the different styles or types of leadership are, and how one becomes a leader. This commentary was written to share some of the insights learned and to encourage others to get involved and make their mark.

The Importance of Leadership

The veterinary profession requires veterinarians to take on leadership roles, regardless of their interest in leadership. Thus, by dedicating even a small amount of time to developing leadership skills, veterinarians can have overwhelmingly positive effects in their personal and professional lives. Leadership provides hope, structure, and confidence that can ultimately lead to success, no matter the endeavor. It provides others with someone to look to for direction and purpose.

Leadership presents the framework within which any team works. It fosters collaboration and teamwork, which can translate into synergistic relationships. Effective leadership gives the team confidence to take risks and change the underlying paradigm, which ultimately can lead to success. It also creates a culture of accountability, which encourages the team to function effectively to achieve its goals and rise above challenges.

Leadership enables individuals to become more assertive. Being a leader empowers an individual to take control of his or her daily life, rather than acting as a passive participant. Leaders can foster a culture where change is accepted, and this can improve various aspects of life, including the working environment, which can lead to increased levels of satisfaction.

Organizational leadership provides a clear vision of collective goals and a path toward achieving those goals. By developing leadership skills in daily life, veterinarians will be better positioned to fill leadership roles within organized veterinary medicine. Taking a leadership role in organized veterinary medicine allows veterinarians to develop feelings of ownership in the profession and empowers veterinarians to meet emerging challenges and shape the future of the profession, rather than simply respond to outside pressures.

Leadership also allows veterinarians to make an impact in their communities. When combined with imagination and vision, leadership can bring substantial improvements to the lives of people and animals. As representatives of the veterinary profession, veterinarians who take leadership roles in their communities can help to bring about transformations in food production systems, animal welfare, sustainability, and the human-animal bond.

Defining Leadership

Leadership is the process by which a person influences others to accomplish a common goal through a collaborative effort. Examples of everyday leadership in veterinary medicine can be as simple as working with a client to explain the importance of vaccinating a new puppy, mentoring a newly graduated veterinarian on his or her first day of practice, or deciding how to distribute farm calls among associates at the clinic. Leadership requires that a team member step forward to encourage the group and lead it toward accomplishing its goals. Leadership is a skill veterinarians can use every day, and because leadership can take so many forms, any veterinarian with the desire to do so can become a leader.

Leadership is a process. Leaders must constantly learn and refine new skills as they navigate their own paths to leadership. These skills include effective communication, delegation, establishment of trust, encouragement, empowerment, and vision. A leader should be able to identify a goal, clearly communicate that goal to the team members, delegate necessary tasks to accomplish the goal, trust that team members will complete their tasks, encourage team members when the goal seems out of reach, and celebrate team member efforts in achieving the goal.

When defining what leadership is, it is perhaps equally important to identify what leadership is not. Leadership is not limited to traditional leader roles such as president or chair. Leadership does not have to dominate or take over one's personal or professional life. It does not require an extroverted personality or exaggeratedly competitive nature, nor does it have to be costly or time-consuming. When deciding which leadership roles to pursue, individuals must first determine their interests, time availability, and goals. Those goals may be developing of basic client communication skills, becoming president of the AVMA, or learning to become an advisor to the local 4-H club.

Successful leadership should also be distinguished from unsuccessful leadership. Taking a moment to step back and watch various interactions throughout the day can help provide examples of leadership and awareness of how different leadership skills are received by others. Finding role models both in the veterinary field and in daily life can help in identifying good leadership and good leadership skills. Observing a leader who is able to drive a team through motivation rather than fear and create an atmosphere of collaboration rather than dictation can be crucial in leadership development. Luckily, finding examples of good leadership is not difficult; a good leader could, for instance, be the technician in your practice who knows how to get things done and in doing so drives the entire team to be more effective.

The debate over whether leadership can be taught or is innate is ongoing, but good evidence suggests that leadership can be developed and fostered. Mentoring can be an effective way to identify and develop leadership skills in both mentors and mentees. Attending conferences on leadership and reading books and articles on leadership can help in the acquisition of effective leadership skills. Assessment of leadership skills, individually and by a third party, is an excellent way to identify deficiencies in leadership skills and point out areas where additional learning and refinement are needed.

Leadership Style

Leaders vary with regard to their leadership style. The most common leadership styles include autocratic, bureaucratic, charismatic, democratic or participative, laissez-faire, people or relations oriented, servant, task oriented, transactional, and transformational (Appendix).2 Transformational leadership is commonly thought of as ideal because it raises the leader and the led to a higher level of motivation and morality,1,3 but no single style of leadership is best.

To lead effectively, leaders must adjust their leadership style to the situation and the culture of the team. They must accurately perceive how much control they should maintain and how much they should distribute to team members. For example, an autocratic leadership style involves maintaining maximal leader control, with little control given to individual team members, whereas a laissez-faire leadership style requires maintaining minimal leader control, with most control given to individual team members. Leaders must also learn to express themselves in their own unique way to maintain credibility with their team, regardless of the style of leadership used.1 The style of leadership that will best elevate the team and best fit the situation will depend on the personality strengths of the leader and team members; self-awareness and understanding what works and what does not are crucial. As we found with our initial group interactions during the AVMA Future Leaders Program, flexibility in leadership style is always indicated. As the 10 of us, each with our own leadership backgrounds, sorted out the dynamics of working as a team, it became clear that adapting each individual's accustomed leadership style would be crucial for the success of the team. Ultimately, to be truly effective, leaders should be flexible and able to adopt multiple leadership styles.

Leadership in the Societal Realm Versus Organized Veterinary Medicine Versus the Workplace

Leadership can also be defined by the arena in which one aspires to lead. As part of the AVMA Future Leaders Program, we elected to focus on three major arenas of leadership—the workplace, organized veterinary medicine, and society—including the ways these arenas differ and the different leadership skills required.

Being a leader in the workplace can be as simple as serving as a positive role model to team members and clients or as comprehensive as leading team retreats and training seminars. Practice ownership is not required for this type of leadership, and attitude and actions alone can make a major impact. Leadership can come in the form of working on client education programs, organizing hospital topic rounds, or providing free lameness education lectures for clients. Additional training in this type of leadership is available through various organizations, such as the AVMA via their website, the Exceptional Veterinary Team program, and the Institute for Healthcare Communication.

Within organized veterinary medicine, positions are available at the local, state, and national levels. Each of these can promote involvement in the profession. These positions can be obtained either through official appointment or by election and vary in regard to term and degree of responsibility and commitment.

Compared with other arenas of leadership, societal involvement is a relatively easy first step into a leadership position owing to the diverse options available and typically shorter time commitments. Leadership at the local level can include activities such as providing elementary school presentations, leading a local scout troop, or providing medical care for resident pets at an assisted living facility. National and international organizations are also options for individuals whose interests are broader; examples include volunteering for disaster response teams, food safety activism, and international veterinary service trips.

In each of these areas, leadership has similar core requirements, such as a passion to be involved, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence. However, the diversity of options allows individuals to pursue specific interests, while taking into account personality type and individual logistic availabilities. Overall, the commitment can vary dramatically, ranging from involvement with a single event to numerous responsibilities over a prolonged period.

Learning Leadership

The pursuit of leadership can be a never-ending adventure. Making the decision to pursue a leadership position is the first step in learning leadership skills. An essential part of this involves gaining an awareness of one's passions, strengths, and weaknesses through self-evaluation and feedback, as this information will help in deciding which types of leadership options to pursue. A mentor can be particularly useful during this stage with helping to identify the right leadership niche.

Taking stock of one's passions is important in identifying those things that will create excitement and make the effort and work of leadership worthwhile. As Kouzes and Posner1 write in The Leadership Challenge, “Deep within us all there is something we hold dear, and if it's ever violated we'll weep and wail. We'll fight to the death to secure it, grieve if we lose it, and shriek with joy when we achieve it.” During the process of identifying one's passions, it should begin to become clear whether leadership in the workplace, organized veterinary medicine, or society should be the focus.

Having a good sense of one's strengths and weaknesses is vital in learning how to best leverage those traits to serve others. An important part of this assessment is being realistic about the time and resources one has available to contribute. Most recent graduates have a heavy student debt burden, and employment as an associate or new owner can account for most of their time.

With self-knowledge, a personal leadership style will naturally develop. Accounting for ingrained characteristics or personality traits such as a preference for being vocal and extroverted or being more reserved and preferring one-on-one interactions will help in developing a comfortable leadership style that can be sustained long term.

Finding someone with a similar leadership style to act as a mentor who can offer insight and guidance can help in developing leadership skills. Mentors can be colleagues, former professors, supervisors, or even friends. Working with state veterinary groups, the local practice community, or national resources such as the AVMA or allied organizations are all ways of finding mentors.

With time, practice, and a willingness to take risks, leadership skills will evolve. Taking small steps is the most effective way to practice these skills and determine which skills need refining. Looking at each opportunity as a way to hone leadership skills will make daily interactions a part of leadership development. Taking risks and volunteering for leadership roles are equally important in developing leadership skills. The ability to grasp new opportunities and risk failure provides tremendous opportunities for growth that will pay dividends far into the future.

Reassessing during every step along the leadership path is critical. This should include keeping track of how one's leadership style is affecting the team dynamic and continually seeking feedback to identify areas of weakness and opportunities for further development. Developing leadership skills requires experimentation and risk taking; some things will work, others will not, but finding out what doesn't work in time to improve is what matters.

To prepare for leadership also means preparing for the opportunities leadership will create. Once an individual becomes recognized as a capable leader, more and more opportunities will present themselves. Part of remaining an effective leader will then involve learning the art of saying no. Setting priorities and continually focusing on true passions will make it possible to give one's best efforts to the things deemed most essential. Frequent reevaluation of time management practices will become necessary to maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Overextension is a common problem and can lead to emotional and physical burnout. Taking time for periodic self-reflection with family, friends, and mentors can help prevent these problems. Additionally, following a personal plan and setting goals will help maintain realistic expectations.

Perceived Obstacles to Leadership

Despite all the information readily available, some veterinarians, especially recent graduates and emerging leaders, may choose not to get involved because they fear a lack of adequate resources in regard to time and money. For many younger veterinarians, concerns about work-life balance may make them hesitant to accept leadership roles. However, many leadership opportunities do not require extensive time commitments or financial obligations.

One of the perceived obstacles to leadership in organized veterinary medicine is the complex structure and political nature of many veterinary associations. The veterinary profession has a long history, and the foundations of organized veterinary medicine are deeply rooted in tradition, which can initially appear daunting when first becoming involved. During the AVMA Future Leaders Program, however, we discovered that reaching out and getting to know someone, possibly in a mentor capacity, who has served in leadership positions in organized veterinary medicine can make participating less intimidating.

An additional barrier is perceived generational differences in the veterinary profession. For younger veterinarians, it can sometimes feel as though they are expected to wait their turn, which may take many years, before becoming involved with a particular veterinary organization. However, showing interest, asking how to get involved, and contacting a role model can all help remove this perceived obstacle.

Conclusion

As participants in the 2011–2012 AVMA Future Leaders program, we had an opportunity to explore and become more aware of leadership in its many forms. We recognize that leadership truly is a daily part of our lives as veterinarians, that we all have the opportunity to make as big an impact as we would like, and that the future of our profession depends on all of us assuming leadership roles. We hope that other recent graduates and emerging veterinary leaders will use the components for learning leadership skills we have been able to identify as they navigate down their own leadership path. We are all too aware of the obstacles that make getting involved challenging, but hope that we can share the idea that the possibilities are truly endless once the journey has been started.

For all commentaries, views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the AVMA.

References

Appendix

The most common leadership styles.2

Leadership styleDescription of the leader's role
AutocraticExerts a high level of control; team members are given few or no opportunities to make suggestions
BureaucraticWorks to ensure that team members follow all procedures exactly as written
CharismaticInfuses large doses of enthusiasm into the team and energetically drives team members forward
Democratic or participativeInvites team members to contribute to the decision-making process, while reserving the right to make a final decision
Laissez-faireLeaves team members alone to complete assigned tasks, but communicates with team members regularly about their progress
People or relations orientedFocuses on organizing, supporting, and developing team members
ServantLeads simply by meeting the needs of team members; includes the whole team in decision making
Task orientedFocuses on getting a particular job done; actively defines the work and the team members’ roles and puts structures in place to plan, organize, and monitor the team's progress
TransactionalRewards or punishes team members in response to their individual efforts and compliance with achieving the team's goal
TransformationalInspires team members with a shared vision through effective communication and delegation of responsibilities
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