Leadership is important in veterinary practice. If you are a solo practitioner, the owner of a small practice or an associate veterinarian, you might be wondering “What does leadership have to do with me?” Leadership is generally defined as the power or ability to lead other people, but leadership also encompasses self-leadership. Real leadership is a quality—not a position. Leaders are the people who know how to achieve goals and inspire others along the way.
“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” —John Maxwell
“The most powerful leadership tool you have is your own personal example.” —John Wooden
What makes a leader? Communication is the real work of leadership. You can reach people through logic, by appealing to their sense of what is rational or to their emotions, or by making an argument based on their sense of values or ethos. Great leaders spend most of their time communicating. They can distill their message, however complex it might be, into something accessible to those who might not share their knowledge or background. Talented leaders have a gift for simplicity; they are articulate and able to convey complicated concepts in just a few phrases. Knowing your audience is also essential for great communication. Leaders must understand the people they’re trying to reach and how to communicate with them most effectively.
Great leaders are also pragmatists who can deal with difficult realities but still have the optimism and courage to act. A test of leadership is the ability to endure setbacks while continuing to show others the way forward. Leaders inspire others. They can appraise situations and the relationships involved swiftly. Leaders know when to act quickly and when it is better to involve others in decision-making. They work to their strengths and leverage the strengths of others.
Let’s consider the difference between small “l” leadership and big “L” leadership. Big “L” leadership follows being appointed or recognized as the leader—you are the practice owner, the sports team captain, the mayor of your community or the deacon in your church. Your leadership follows the authority vested in you by the office or position you hold.
The leadership that flows from the power of position (big “L”) includes the power to give rewards, the power to punish and the power to control information. While this type of leadership certainly has strength in limited situations, leaders who use coerciveness and the threat of their power to accomplish their objectives are usually seen as autocratic and dominating. They rarely succeed in exerting positive influence over their organization or the people they employ. Few people enjoy having power exerted over them, and they will do whatever they can to undermine those who try to control them through position.
While big “L” leaders have formal positions that define their leadership, small “l” leaders have informal positions on teams and serve with fine-grained leadership. Everyone has a chance to be a small “l” leader. Think about the times when you had no official title, and consider the ways in which you might have led by example: when you helped or taught others; when you spoke up about an issue you’re passionate about; when you assumed responsibility to do something well or to see something through even if you weren’t the one “in charge.” This is small “l” leadership, and it is extraordinarily important. Small “l” leaders make a difference every day.
“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” —John Quincy Adams
No matter what kind of leader you are, you can make a difference by being a better leader.
Collaborative, thoughtful leadership that values followers’ ideas and needs will always be more successful than an autocratic approach. Increase your self-awareness, and you will increase your leadership skills. Lead on!
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