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Following the letters of leadership

Kansas City

The Day 3 keynote lecture at Fetch Kansas City engaged the audience to discuss words that describe a good leader and their meaning

Photo: Kristen Coppock/dvm360

Keynote participants created a word cloud for each letter in 'leadership' that describes the attributes that are important to them.

Photo: Kristen Coppock/dvm360

Keynote participants created a word cloud for each letter in 'leadership' that describes the attributes that are important to them.

There are many words to describe leadership and its attributes. In a keynote session at the Fetch Kansas City conference in Missouri, speaker Bob Murtaugh, DVM, MS, DACVIM, DACVECC, chief professional relations officer (retired) for Thrive Pet Healthcare, led attendees through an interactive discussion of words to describe leadership and why they were chosen.

The discussion, sponsored by Epicur Pharma and Cubex, started with the letter ‘L’. “We’re going to work our way through the leadership alphabet,” he told the crowd.

Murtaugh kicked off the leadership alphabet with words of his own: Listening, looking, and lifelong learning. “Listening is the first marker of a good leader,” he said. A good leader must listen authentically and actively, ask questions, and try to understand where others are coming from, he added.

“Also, looking. You have 2 eyes and should be looking outwardly at your customers and your stakeholders. You also need to be looking inwardly at your team, especially members of your team that are new or that are not the veterinarians. Members of your team are going to make a difference,” Murtaugh said.

As a faculty member and hospital director for the large and small animal teaching hospitals at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Massachusetts earlier in his career, Murtaugh also explained why lifelong learning helps to make a good leader. “We never stop learning as veterinarians in the profession, and it’s important to engage your team and learn from your team,” he said.

The leadership alphabet

The following words were suggested by speaker Bob Murtaugh, DVM, MS, DACVIM, DACVECC, and keynote attendees at the 2023 Fetch Kansas City conference in MissourI.

L: Listening, looking, lifelong learning

E: Empathy, ethical, enthusiastic

A: Attitude, authentic

D: Delegate, dependable

E: Empowerment, energetic, engaged

R: Respect, respectful, resilient, responsible,

S: Supportive, sympathetic, staunchness

H: Honest, humble, helpful, healthy, humor, happiness

I: integrity, ingenuity, inclusive

P: Positive, personable, pioneer, patience, passionate, persistent, partnership

Following his words for ‘L,’ Murtaugh turned the discussion mostly over to the audience. Using their smartphones, attendees typed into the conference’s app words that meant leadership to them. Although some participants were hesitant at first to explain their word choices to the crowd, Murtaugh’s engaging discussion soon elicited a flood of attendees taking turns with the microphone.


“My No. 1 ‘E’ is empathy,” said Murtaugh. “Why do you think that is?” One attendee responded that empathy applies to all parts of the practice, including patient care, client interactions, and managing staff.


Attitude was the top word for ‘A.’ “You have to have a positive attitude for your clients, your employees, and [be] someone that people can get behind. You have to have that go-to attitude,” said another attendee.


Building your team, retention, and growth requires a good leader to delegate and be dependable, according to the audience poll. “From a standpoint of building a team, and looking at things like retention and growth, it’s important to be a leader that does delegate and elevates people in the process of running your business,” said Murtaugh. Additionally, “People have to count on you as a leader. You have to show up and be there,” he said.


Empowerment, energetic, and engaged were among the words mentioned for the second ‘E’ in leadership. One participant explained that empowering other individuals is a gift that can be bestowed upon staff. “You empower them to be what they can be,” she said.


Respect and respectful were top words for ‘R’. Murtaugh said some individuals may be shown respect for their title or through ownership of a practice, but they’re not necessarily earning it on a daily basis. “Respect is something you earn, not that you’re given,” he added.


Attendees agreed that a good leader is supportive. Collaboration with staff, touching base with team members and clients, being aware of issues, and stepping in when needed to resolve problems were important to participants.

Being sympathetic to colleagues and clients was also a key element noted by the audience. “We all need to be sympathetic to each other,” said an attendee.


An attendee from Kansas offered “hopeful” as her word. “The veterinary industry can be very hard for multiple reasons… It’s very easy to fall into this mindset of despair and burnout,” she said, adding that expressing hope can lift the entire team.

“[Humor] is such a bonding tool among your staff. It helps make you human to them, and boosts morale,” said a woman from Missouri. An attendee from Arkansas noted happiness is also a key ingredient to leadership. “No one wants to be in a toxic environment,” she noted.


Integrity, innovative, intelligent, inspiring, and insightful were among the ‘I’ words chosen by the audience. An attendee from North Carolina also suggested “intentional.” “We have to make a decision every day to not be reactive to things that come through the door,” she noted.

“Ingenuity” was suggested by a participant from Illinois, who noted that challenges often arise in practice, including equipment issues. “We have to be very creative and clever in handling those situations. As a leader, you’re the one they’re looking to,” she said.

Another attendee said being “inclusive” is a sign of good leadership. “Helping everyone feel welcome,” she explained. “You never know what people are going through, how they’re feeling.”


Attendees provided a number of words for ‘P’ including the following: Positive, personable, pioneer, patience, passionate, persistent, proactive, and partnership. One attendee also added “past” to the list and explained that leaders learn from their own mistakes and experiences. By remembering the past, he said, those lessons can be shared and help guide a practice going forward.

Take away

Murtaugh concluded the session by instructing attendees to choose one word that means leadership to them, and that they feel they need to work on. Their homework was to go forth and work with that word in mind.

“We all have things we can do to improve ourselves and improve our environment,” he concluded.


Murtaugh B. What the ‘L’ is going on?! Leadership and Communication. Presented at: Fetch dvm360 conference; August 25-27, 2023. Kansas City, Missouri.

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