Leadership Matters for Equine Veterinarians

Learn how to be a leader to yourself, your clients, your staff and your coworkers.

In every aspect of your life—personal and professional—you should strive to be a positive leader, clearing the way to allow others to excel. Thinkstock

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?” It might help to define leadership.

Webster’s Dictionary calls leadership “the power or ability to lead other people,” but it also encompasses self-leadership.

If you ask individuals what leadership means to them, you often get different answers from each person. But while the definitions might vary, the general sentiments remain the same: Leaders are people who know how to achieve goals and inspire people along the way. In the words of life coach John Maxwell, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.” Or, in the words of coach John Wooden, “The most powerful leadership tool you have is your own personal example.”


Let’s next consider the difference between “little ‘l’ ” leadership and “big ‘L’ ” leadership. “Big ‘L’ ” leadership is that which fol lows being appointed or recognized as the leader—you are the practice owner, the 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.

By contrast, think about the times when you had no official title, yet you still led by example; when you have helped or taught others; when you have spoken up regarding an issue about which you are passionate; and when you have assumed the responsibility to do something well or to see something through, even if you weren’t the one “in charge.” This is “little ‘l’ ” leadership, and it is extraordinarily important in the world. This kind of leader makes a difference every day. As John Quincy Adams once said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

Leaders cannot inspire others if they cannot lead themselves. Self-leadership includes:

• self-awareness—the ability to acknowledge, understand and be conscious of one’s own values, perspectives, strengths, weaknesses, leadership styles and emotional needs; and

• self-management—the ability to nurture and harness one’s own passion, abilities, emotions and leadership capacity in decision-making. Leading others requires:

• other-awareness—the ability to acknowledge and recognize the passion, gifts, strengths, weaknesses, potential and needs of others; and

• other-management—the ability to grow and motivate other people to develop their potential and/or fulfill the organization’s objectives.

Some leaders are conscious of themselves— their personalities, idiosyncrasies, motivations and competencies—but they simply cannot manage themselves, especially their emotions and weaknesses. They lack self-control, lose their cool, become critical, behave inappropriately, are unable to delegate and have difficulty keeping their pride in check.

Self-leadership is an ongoing process of self-reflection, not a one-time project. The ongoing, everyday habit of self-reflection and measurement of behavior against personal principles and goals builds this leadership of self. Personal leadership is a never-ending work in progress that draws on continually maturing self-understanding. Sadly, some people never mature to become leaders, instead remaining insecure, self-defeating and unable to control their own behaviors, much less influence others.

Veterinarians are called to be leaders in their profession and in their communities. They lead colleagues, clients, students, families and fellow citizens. Leadership is often confused with management, but compare and contrast the roles of these in the chart below.

Managers                                              Leaders

focus on things                       focus on people
do things right                        do the right things
plan                                          inspire
organize                                  influence
direct                                       motivate
control                                    collaborate
follow the rules                      take risks
encourage conformity          encourage creativity
provide instruction                provide inspiration
create followers                    create other leaders

Managers vs. Leaders

Practice owners must be managers as well as leaders, and it is important to recognize that both have valid and valuable roles to play in a practice. It is also essential to understand that if you are in a leadership role but fail to lead, there will be a leader, but you will have no influence over the direction that the followers will go.

One of the responsibilities of being a practice owner is to lead. As a solo practitioner, this means that you set clear expectations for your clients so their demands don’t overrun the boundaries of your personal life. As a multi-doctor practice owner, this extends your responsibility to setting expectations for your entire practice team and helping its members achieve their professional goals, as well as the goals of the practice, to the best of your ability.

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 might have some 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, and they rarely succeed in exerting any positive influence over their organizations or the people they employ. Few people enjoy having power exerted over them and will do whatever they can to undermine those who try to control them.

Instead, practice owners need to lead through sharing of information, collaboration and inspiring their team members with a vision. The first step is articulating the practice’s vision clearly and regularly, so that the entire staff understands the leader’s priorities and why importance is placed on those goals.

It is also important to realize that mood is contagious. In Daniel Goleman’s article “Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership,” he explained how mirror neurons influence the moods of groups of people. As a leader, you must take responsibility for controlling your moods and coming into the workplace in a positive mood to set the tone for the day. Your employees’ moods will often mirror yours; if you are stressed and irritable, don’t be surprised if your receptionist snaps at clients on the phone, or your technician is surly.

Respect for your leadership must be earned by your actions. You must walk your talk, or you risk losing the respect of your colleagues, your clients and/or your practice team members. Always align your actions with your values and priorities.

Every practice has struggles, and good leaders will show resilience in the face of discouragement. No matter whether you are a “big ‘L’ ” or a “little ‘l’ ” leader, you can be a beacon of light and positive emotion in times of trouble. Make sure your glass is always at least half full. Don’t be the person about whom another could say, “His glass isn’t just half empty; I’m not sure it’s ever had water in it!”

Perseverance might be the most important of all the habits of successful leaders. In fact, even if you struggle sometimes with your leadership, with perseverance you will eventually succeed. Because difficulties, obstacles and stress can show up frequently in a busy veterinary practice, that means leaders get a lot of opportunities to be resourceful and feed a culture of optimism and confidence.

Ineffective Leaders

Ineffective leaders typically share common weaknesses. The first is not trusting team members. The job of the leader is to guide his or her team to accomplish practice goals. However, too often, leaders either micromanage their employees or personally take on more tasks than they can accomplish successfully.

These two things happen for the same reason: Leaders don’t trust their team members to do something as well as the leaders themselves can do it. Many leaders, especially perfectionist veterinarians, struggle with delegating projects to others, for fear that no one will be able to meet their level of execution. Unfortunately, this behavior typically prevents engagement from succeeding and causes employees to feel less invested in the success of a particular initiative.

It’s important that, as a leader, you select a team of people who share your values, train them well, then give them the autonomy to be able to succeed individually. This kind of trust is particularly important because people feel most satisfied with their work when they understand the expected outcome but are allowed to have control over the process.

Handling Problems

Another common challenge among leaders is learning how to handle disagreements or problems that arise within the team. You might be afraid that calling out someone in your practice for poor behavior or performance will make him or her dislike you, but in the long run, it will hurt your whole staff more if you don’t nip an issue in the bud.

Many veterinarians avoid confrontation at all costs, but when performance or personality issues go unaddressed, they fester and set an overall tone that decreases the team’s trust in its leader. Resentment typically builds, not toward the offending employee, but toward the practice owner who lets the situation continue uncorrected. If there is an issue, it’s best to address it right away before it escalates.

Most people incorrectly assume that a problem is the result of incompetence or poor performance, when in actuality it’s often a result of a misunderstanding of expectations. Remember Stephen Covey’s fifth habit: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

Seek Input and Stay Humble

Making decisions without seeking the input of those with the most knowledge is another way that leaders go astray. Always have a conversation with the employees who are either doing the work (e.g., performing lab tests) or are affected by your decision (e.g., choosing uniforms) before coming to a final decision. Not only does this foster a positive atmosphere in the practice, you also might learn something important that affects your thinking.

Poor leaders often lack humility. Leaders should never pretend that they’re infallible or more important than others. People need to know that you’re not above admitting your shortcomings, so lead by example and be transparent if you make a bad decision or fail to be the leader you aspire to be.

Reward, Recognize and Celebrate

Finally, when you’re caught up in the crazy whirlwind of equine veterinary practice, you might not always take the time to express your appreciation for your team’s hard work. Even worse, you might feel so overwhelmed by your own contribution that your coworkers’ efforts might pale in comparison in your mind.

But people thrive on appreciation, and they aren’t mind readers. If you think someone is doing a good job or has done something specific that shines, be sure that you tell him or her in a way that will resonate with that person. This includes senior veterinarians praising younger veterinarians and young veterinarians praising senior veterinarians; they all want to be rewarded and recognized for their merits.

If associates don’t feel appreciated, chances are they will search for new employment. It’s important to note that some folks enjoy being recognized in a meeting of their peers, but others would be horrified by the spotlight. Make the effort to know their comfort level and preferences.


All of these weaknesses also show up in the leadership of clients. Does it make you furious when your client doesn’t follow your recommendations? Maybe he or she failed to understand the instructions or the reasons why they were important! Do you seek your client’s opinion about his or her horse’s condition, treatment and response to therapy? If you do, that person will feel more engaged and respected.

Do you ever play the “I’m an important doctor; you need to listen to me” card? Being humble with your clients might create more loyalty.

Do you praise your client when he or she follows a complicated treatment plan and shows dedication and attention to detail? Everyone likes praise for a job well done. Giving your client a compliment about good care helps build an emotional bond to your practice.

Take-Home Message

Leadership matters on many levels. Being aware of the plethora of ways that you are a leader in your life—whether leading yourself, your clients, your staff or your coworkers—is essential if you want to have the most positive impact possible. Lead on! 

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