What’s the one thing I never knew about becoming a veterinarian?

Doctors endure a great deal of expectations. We should be kind, compassionate, and intelligent. We must be patient, efficient, and accessible. Doctors should be passionate about their craft, able to endure long work hours, possess excellent time management skills, while continually updating their knowledge.

These features are not unrealistic and are not restricted to successful individuals within the medical profession. I’m never shocked when I see those traits listed as “desirable characteristics” within a veterinary job description or on an employee evaluation form.

One trait I never anticipated I would need to possess to be a successful doctor is being an effective leader.

I’ve always been capable of leading by example. I’ve made a concerted effort to behave professionally at all times as I’ve carried the burden of someone whose words and actions are heard and observed not only by my colleagues, but to a community well beyond the walls of my exam room. But I never felt this translated to me being a true leader.

I perceived the doctors who breeze into the hospital and effortlessly assign responsibilities, unstressed about potential conflicts or concern about perturbing another person’s schedule, as the most effective leaders. Their effortless demeanor, ability to delegate tasks, and, most importantly, their ability to have people respond to their requests, were, to me, signs of the epitome of leadership.

With this as my defining point, I’ve always felt uncomfortable with taking on a leadership role. Innately, I feel terrible when I delegate tasks, especially when I recognize an inkling that the person I’m about to ask to help me is less than enthusiastic about what I am asking them to do.

The sticky part is, my job requires me to constantly ask for help. I can’t make it through an appointment, a procedure, or an encounter with an owner on my own. My job requires me to be only a small part of a team approach to my patient’s care. This is true whether evaluating a pet for a routine recheck exam or when stabilizing a critically ill patient in the ICU.

In my quest to improve my professional skills, I came across an organization called “The Veterinary Leadership Institute.” On their website they address some of the struggles veterinarians face with specific regard to leadership.

“Medical proficiency alone is not enough for veterinary professionals to effectively respond to the changing needs of an increasingly diverse society with the skill and competency necessary to succeed in their evolving roles. To reach their potential, veterinarians also need emotional intelligence, communication skills, cultural awareness, professionalism, the ability to work in teams, conflict resolution strategies, and the understanding that multiple approaches may be employed to resolve challenges.”

After I read this description, I became increasingly confused. I could easily tick off the listed attributes on an imaginary checklist of how I approach my work. But I’m not a good leader and I don’t like taking on a leadership role, so how is this possible?

I started to scrutinize the behavior of doctors I previously categorized as effective or ineffective leaders and found many could be divided into one of two groups. The “we-ers” and the “do-ers.”

The “we-ers” appeared to be in control and were the ones I felt were the greatest leaders. They often used verbal commanding statements such as:

“Can we change the antibiotic from injectable to oral?”

“Can we call the owner and let her know the pick up time?”

“We need to be better about sending owners home with discharge statements.”

“We-ers” consistently use the word “we” in a passive manner, making the question being posed seem outwardly less like an order and more like a group activity. “We-ing” deflected a sense of accountability from a single person to several.

What I noticed was that despite their seemingly calm and cooperative exterior and ability to designate assignments, the “we-ers” had no intention of participating in the aforementioned requested task and were simply telling other people what to do.

The “do-ers,” on the other hand, asked for help but participated in the situation as equals with whomever they were requesting help from.

“Do-ers” made definitive and direct statements:

“Change Fluffy’s antibiotic to capsule form.”

“Call Fido’s owner and let her know he is ready to go home.”

“Remember to send discharge statements home with owners.”

Though I admired their ability to “get stuff done,” the “do-ers” never struck me as leaders.

I then read an inspiring quote stating that “the difference between managers is leaders have people follow them while managers have people who work for them.” Managers are akin to my “we-ers,” while leaders are the “do-ers.”

I realized that those who are a good proportion of the people I looked up to as leaders could actually be more accurately described as “we-ers”; glorified managers who gave order and had people do their work for them, but who lacked the ability to inspire those around them.

The “do-ers” who were more apt to fade into the background were the ones who truly fit the actual definition of a leader much more effectively than the “we-ers” ever did.

Though I still have a terribly hard time when I ask others for assistance, I now recognize this doesn’t make me any less of a leader than a person who can more confidently take on that role.

It may mean I’m a less efficient “do-er,” but the good news is I have plenty of room for improvement.

And I’m very happy to “do” more to better myself in that capacity every day.

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