5 veterinary leadership skills every boss needs to learn

October 1, 2019
Mike Paul, DVM

Volume 50, Issue 11

I've spent decades watching leaders and leading, and I think these traits are the best ones for every leader in veterinary practice to learn.

As Americans prepare for a prolonged process of selecting our country's leaders, my other home of Anguilla is beginning the same process on a smaller scale. So, I find myself listening to and watching two elections that will impact my life, trying to stay informed in a sea of disinformation and wondering how people make their voting decisions. What do we look for in our leaders?

In architecture, there is a truism that form follows function, which is the idea that design should reflect the ultimate purpose of a building. Unfortunately, in politics it seems that function follows form. Leaders make decisions-and we pick them-based on their personality and style, rather than character and substance. That virtually guarantees that elected leaders lack the skills to be a good leader and make good decisions.

What separates the wheat from the chaff? What does it take to be a better leader, not just someone who can convince people to give them a management job or be elected to office? According to experts, it's probably a mix of innate talent and learned skills that result in flexible leadership that allows an individual to adapt to different situations. To be a successful and effective leader in changing and challenging settings one must adapt to change.

Autocratic, demanding leaders (most of us have had them one time or another) are rarely successful. They never were leaders. They were bosses. That used to work but no more. Leaders today in public office, in business and in veterinary practices must come prepared with the following traits and tools:

Communicate well and truthfully

As in most corners of life, the most important skill to master is communication. When I think back on the best leaders I've worked with, they were great communicators. Poor communicators aren't trusted or respected, because they're dishonest and delivering less than they ask from others.

Truly great leaders are clear, consistent, truthful and genuine. Lying and inconsistency make it hard to feel safe, interpret the truth or prepare for the future. It's important for leaders to internalize the fact that untruths and exaggerations result in people not trusting and therefore not listening to you.

Great leaders must be trustworthy. Once violated, trust is gone and results in a loss of commitment and loyalty. After all, why trust a person who's been proven untrustworthy? More lies and misdeeds will surely lie ahead.

Show fairness

Treat everyone fairly and equally. Playing favorites undercuts relationships not only between management and team members but among team members. A sense of unfair treatment has been shown to increase staff turnover and back biting. Bullying, real or perceived, decreases employee and customer retention. The best leaders have a skill for treating people fairly and right.

Leaders make sure that praise and recognition are disseminated appropriately to all. They don't need to be the hero. The goal is cooperation and collaboration, a team working together to optimize one another's strengths and balance each other's weaknesses. 

Be willing to listen and learn

There's no place in leadership for a know-it-all. Know-it-all leaders create a culture where people stop sharing ideas and eventually stop participating at all. The know-it-all stifles creativity. Pretty soon, staff meetings result in a room full of crickets. The know-it-all gets what they want: They're always right.

Be strong, not the focus

Naturally, a leader should be strong and confident but not egotistical. Humility is a critical trait of a strong individual, and strength is crucial for leadership. I've heard it said, humility isn't thinking less of yourself-it's thinking of yourself less.

I asked my son recently what he does at an international consulting firm. The answer left me unclear on his duties, but crystal clear that he knew what he was doing: “My job is to make sure that everyone on my team succeeds and shines.” I think I'd like to work for him.

Lighten up

Being an extraordinary leader is not as easy as having your name on the letterhead or your desk. Leadership is stressful work that requires involvement in every key decision and puts big decisions on your shoulders. Laughter and a sense of humor carry you and those you work with a long way. Even in difficult times, a friendly smile or a laugh are contagious and go a long way to a generally positive environment. Laughter relieves stress, improves attitudes and enhances personal satisfaction. Ultimately, maybe laughter is the best medicine.

Imagine the leader you want to be and live by these rules of leadership.

Dr. Paul is the former executive director of the Companion Animal Parasite Council and a former president of the American Animal Hospital Association. He is currently the principal of MAGPIE Veterinary Consulting. He is retired from practice and lives in Anguilla, British West Indies.

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