Game of Thrones: Are veterinary leaders born or made?


Why the hit HBO show has something to teach those who lead in veterinary medicine. Are you Stark, Lannister, a Direwolf or one of those misfit leaders? (Hint: I'm down with Khaleesi.)

Editor's note: Beware. Spoilers coming for those of you not caught up with the latest season.

The new season of Game of Thrones (GoT) is almost upon us and I couldn't help but think of leadership in veterinary practice while reading about show-specific theories for GoT. The more I learned about the different leadership styles from practice management consultant Deborah Stone, PhD, from her dissertation on leadership in the veterinary profession, the more the Starks, the Lannisters and other big personalities in the fantasy show were on my mind.

When I first got into veterinary school, I remember learning that servant leadership (click for Wikipedia entry)-where the leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible-was the best way to lead. Now while this may be true for some people in the veterinary profession, I don't think it's true for me. When it comes to leadership, it turns out there's no one-size-fits-all way of leading. Perhaps it's about finding a way that fits you and your own strengths, values and character best, so you can lead your own way.





Illustration by Hannah WagleGreat Person theory

(House Stark)

"The man who passes the sentence must swing the sword."

- Eddard Stark

OK, almost everybody loves House Stark and is always secretly rooting for them. And I think this noble family really embodies the so-called "Great Person" theory of leadership.

“This is the granddaddy of leadership concepts," says leadership scholar Richard Daft, PhD, in a quotation in Stone's dissertation. Some early studies of leadership adopted the belief that leaders were born with certain heroic leadership traits and natural abilities of power and influence. Some people, they argue, are simply born for greatness.

That may be true in some cases, but some of those great people also simply get their heads chopped off or stabbed in the back if all they rely on is that they're "born into it" (Red Wedding episode, anyone?). C'mon, there has got to be more to this leadership gig!

When it comes to veterinary practice, we've all seen multiple generations in families becoming veterinarians, as if, perhaps, the best veterinarians and leaders in our profession really are born into it. But as I read the people's innermost thoughts and fears in the Veterinary Confessionals Project, I see more and more older veterinarians discouraging their children from becoming veterinarians because they want them to be happy.

I suspect most veterinary leaders aren't really born, but made. (Although if your great-grandfather was a fantastic veterinarian, and you're pretty awesome too, more power to you, Stark.)



Illustration by Hannah WagleTrait theory

(House Lannister)

"Some battles are won with swords and spears, others with quills and ravens."

- Tywin Lannister

Even if you think the Lannisters are scumbags, you can't deny that they're effective. Lannisters believe you need certain traits to be a leader. You're not simply a leader because you're born into greatness (or born as a Lannister).

Case in point: Tyrion Lannister, the one who drinks and knows things, is denied a leadership role by his family because they don't believe he possesses the right traits-which is just a nicer way of saying they outright despise him. (We all, of course, hope that he proves what's left of his family wrong.)

Stone's dissertation talks about leadership scholar Mark Green, PhD, who uses empirical methods to measure aspects of leadership: appearance, personality, intelligence and social background being the main few. Hmmm, OK, maybe not my cup of tea either, because I might end up getting assassinated by one of my own-next!

When it comes to the veterinary profession, there are characteristics that employers have traditionally looked for when choosing a member to work for them and, ultimately, lead a veterinary team: a willingness to work long hours, availability at the drop of a hat, prioritizing work over family and sticking to the job for long periods of time (that is, no job-hopping).

This may be an old way of thinking, with our new generation coming in with traits and needs different from our elders. It's no wonder we may feel a bit like Tyrion-misunderstood and bitter, but filled with a desire to lead in a new way. Maybe we have traits that the current generation undervalues that will spark a new revolution in veterinary leadership. Time will tell ...



Illustration by Hannah WagleServant leadership


"... when the cold winds blow, the lone wolf dies and the pack survives."

- Ned Stark

Yes, everybody loves the direwolves, because, well, they're badass. They're born to serve, yet they also lead the pack.

According to Peter Northouse, PhD, quoted in Stone's dissertation, in the early 1970s the founder of the servant leadership movement, Robert Greenleaf, developed a somewhat paradoxical approach to leadership. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, first and foremost-even as a leader. Then that conscious choice to serve, to help, pushes one to help the most by being a leader. A servant leader, then, is different from other leaders who are leaders first.

In Game of Thrones, the Direwolves are near extinction (though there's also the theory they are all in the hiding out in the haunted forest … food for thought). And even though they're badass and loved by everyone, perhaps their leadership style is also going extinct (or currently in hiding)?

The difficulty in the veterinary profession with servant leadership at times is that the servant leader is often well loved but not well respected. Sometimes being well-liked doesn't mesh well with authority, and as soon as servant leaders need to take charge in an authoritative way, they get metaphorically (and literally, in the case of the TV show) stabbed, locked up or killed. Which has been the fate of most of the dire wolves. Self-sacrifice, while noble, can lead to extinction.



Illustration by Hannah WagleTransformational leadership

(Jon Snow, who's half-Stark and half-Targaryen)

"We're not here to fight. We're here to talk."

- Jon Snow

You look to your peers to decide how to lead and how to motivate employees to the maximum. As Mark Green puts it, quoted in Stone's dissertation, transformational leadership "involves a leader-follower exchange relationship in which the followers feel trust, loyalty and respect toward the leader and are motivated to do more than originally expected."

Jon Snow is the epitome of this style. He convinced the Wildlings to join his side and fight for him, which was a huge feat. How does that happen, though?

The transformational leader works with subordinates to identify needed change, creates a vision to guide the change through inspiration and executes the change in tandem with committed members of a group. Unfortunately for Jon Snow, his transformational leadership has some rough spots. Trying to lead many different kinds of people, he experiences a pretty severe identity crisis. Can he be in the Night's watch after he falls in love with a Wildling from the other side of the wall? He's so wrapped up in it all that people end up doubting him and (SPOILER!) killing him. After all that, he does come back from the dead, so perhaps there's hope still in his difficult path.

When it comes to veterinary leadership, if your brothers of the Watch-err, team members-see that you're unsure of yourself or can't instill change in a way that makes everyone happy with your choices, you're in trouble. While these actions may stem from a place of wanting to do right by everybody, you can end up getting pulled in all directions and then (SPOILER!) getting stabbed in the back by a child.



Illustration by Hannah WagleAuthentic leadership

(Daenerys Targaryen

aka Khaleesi

Mother of dragons

Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen

First of Her Name

The Unburnt

Queen of the Andals and the First Men

Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea

Breaker of Chains

and Mother of Dragons)

"It seems to me that a queen who trusts no one is as foolish as a queen who trusts everyone.”

- Daenerys Targaryen

She's the badass leader who has always known who she is from the start.

She has been able to take on different identities and function in different groups as an effective leader. After literally being sold to a “savage” tribe of warriors, she worked her way to become their leader and the leader of many cities and tribes along the way.

In other words, she's taken a lot of heat-literally-and walked through fire unscathed.

According to Bruce Avolio, PhD, and William Gardner, MBA, in Stone's dissertation, authentic leaders lead more effectively during challenging times. Of course, an authentic leader needs authentic followers; Daenerys has armies supporting her, though not too many of them are authentic (and, in fact, a fair few want her dead).

These leaders have increased self-awareness and self-regulation and do a good job of positive modeling of workplace behavior and skills. They're more interested in empowering the people they lead to make a difference than they are in power, money or prestige for themselves. Sounds like the breaker of chains to me!

The key distinction between authentic leadership and the other forms above is that authentic leaders are anchored by their own deep sense of self. They know where they stand on important issues, values and beliefs. Authentic leaders can be directive, participative and even authoritarian, depending on the circumstance. The Mother of Dragons ticks all three of these categories. Although sometimes these have been flaws rather than assets, she has failed and risen, time and time again, stronger than before. Sign me up!

In the current world (or, y'know, game) of veterinary medicine, this may ultimately be the style that will conquer. You become an unshakable leader when you truly know what you stand for and who you are. Giving badass speeches may also work in your favor when you need to amp yourself up-or others. Find your superpowers, hone them well. And having a few dragons on your team never hurts, either.

CVC educator Hilal Dogan, BVSc, owns mobile veterinary service Dogan Vet Care in Maui, Hawaii. She started the Veterinary Confessionals Project as a senior veterinary student at Massey University in New Zealand.

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