Understanding the difference between the action of management and the art of leadership is crucial to a successful veterinary practice.
While the terms "management" and "leadership" overlap a little, they are not the same thing—although you can't have one without the other. Management is tough enough on its own and, frankly, most people never learn to lead.
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Management involves making things happen. It refers to planning and implementation in order to build ideas into realities. The role of the leader is more ethereal: to inspire, motivate and create.
In your personal life, you have the need to manage and the opportunity to lead. You may be managing your family budget, but you are leading your children as they develop into young adults. It's the same in your professional life—as a veterinarian you are both a manager and a leader.
But until recent years, we veterinarians received very little education in either management or leadership. In my own case, it was a painful learning process. I had to be led to drink from the fountain of management, and only occasionally did I "manage" to lead my practice. I didn't enjoy managing people and my leadership skills developed late. During the years, and at the expense of those around me, I stumbled into roles of leadership.
So what am I doing talking about something that I admittedly don't have a natural talent for? As Richard Bach says in the book Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah (Dell, 1989), "We teach best what we most need to know." And leadership is still something I am learning.
As veterinarians or practice owners, all of us have managed individuals or teams in the pursuit of a goal. These management challenges may have involved dealing with employee absences or providing skills training. We had specific goals and objectives—but not really a leadership role. Leadership involves persuading people that their absence or lack of skill will hold back the practice's shared commitment to patient care.
The role of a veterinarian should be leadership, not management, but leadership is not a natural sequel to management. You have to want to be a leader. You have to learn to be a leader. And you have to work to be a leader. The core of management is stability-focused and directive in nature—it focuses on telling people what to do. A leader must inspire and convince people that following his or her leadership will result in everyone achieving their goal. While managers often take credit for successes of their team and place blame for shortcomings, a leader gives credit and accepts blame as part of the team.
The goal is to have the people you're leading want what you want. How do you do that? If you're lucky, you can use your natural charm and powers of persuasion, but not all leaders are inherently charismatic. You do have to be good with people—not by trying to build friendships, as a manager might do, but by developing a high "emotional quotient" level and cultivating sensitivity to others. These things come more naturally to some than to others, but they can all be learned.
While managers are often risk-averse—after all, risk makes their job harder—leaders are risk seekers. As leaders we frequently have to walk on thin ice—thoughtfully, carefully, but without fear. Again, sometimes our personal makeup in terms of risk tolerance plays a part in our suitability to be leaders but, as with people skills, the ability to wisely seek risk is a skill that can be cultivated.
One of the best books on leadership I have read is On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis (Perseus, 1989). Even if you are an associate, read this and other resources and push yourself to lead. Your time will come.
Dr. Michael Paul, @mikepauldvm on Twitter, is a nationally known speaker and columnist and the principal of Magpie Veterinary Consulting. He lives in Anguilla in the British West Indies.