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  • Writer's pictureJosh Vaisman

The Beautiful Burden of Leadership

Let’s be honest. Working in the veterinary profession is damn hard. Being an advocate for the voiceless comes with special challenges. When combined with environmental factors such as substandard wages, long hours, workforce attrition, and the interpersonal difficulties that often arise in client interactions, this work asks a lot of us.

More often than not we rise up and answer the call. Because we are strong, talented, passionate people who can do hard things and do them well.

But man, answering that call can be emotionally and psychologically expensive. Which is why it’s important we work in environments that buoy us. There’s only so long we can ask each other to tread the tumultuous waters of a veterinary career all on our own. We need people who can help us learn to swim, throw us a life-preserver when necessary, and sometimes even bring us the nutrition that can keep our legs kicking. It takes a whole crew. And every high-functioning crew has a high-quality captain.

The captain – or leader – holds a great deal of influence over the ship and its crew. They dictate direction and destination. They select, coach, and dismiss the crew. And the way they interact with the people on this ship holds sway over how those people feel and perform. Perhaps a bigger sway than you might imagine.

In 2016 a paper was published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior. The authors conducted a meta-analysis looking at the relationship between leadership styles and team members’ mental health and performance. What they found was striking.

The study authors sought to identify if the literature showed a consistent relationship between leadership behaviors and team member’s workplace experience. After reviewing over 140 peer-reviewed studies, they indeed found a statistically significant relationship. Specifically, they found that leadership behaviors predicted team member’s:

  • Anger, anxiety, and depressive symptoms

  • Burnout

  • Stress

  • Wellbeing

  • Psychological functioning

  • and health complaints

More specifically, the paper suggests that if a team member routinely interacts with a workplace leader (think manager, supervisor, medical director, hospital owner, etc.) who is a positive leader, they are significantly less likely to report negative emotions, burnout, or stress at work. They are also more likely to report workplace wellbeing and high psychological functioning.

In 2022, Flourish Veterinary Consulting conducted a study in which almost 600 veterinary professionals across a variety of clinical roles and contexts participated. Respondents rated 16 leadership behaviors (such as how leaders respond to team member mistakes or how often leaders show appreciation for the positive impacts team members make at work) in their workplace and self-reported their state of wellbeing using a variety of evidence-based metrics.

We divided out the data into 3 categories:

  1. Respondents who reported that, on average, their workplace leaders frequently display the 16 positive leadership behaviors. This was our high-positive leadership group.

  2. Respondents who reported that, on average, their workplace leaders infrequently display the 16 positive leadership behaviors. This was our low-positive leadership group.

  3. Respondents who report a neutral response (e.g., “I neither agree or disagree”) when asked about these 16 positive leadership behaviors. This was our neutral group.

We then compared how each group responded to the self-reported workplace wellbeing metrics. The results were strikingly similar to the meta-analysis shared above.

On average, respondents who reported low-positive leadership in their practice also reported they were “just getting by” at work. By comparison, respondents who reported high-positive leadership said, on average, they were “doing well despite the struggles and challenges I face” at work.

Leadership makes a difference. In veterinary workplaces, positive leadership seems to make a positive difference.

At least that’s what the research suggests.

This is the beautiful burden of leadership. Especially now, navigating leadership in veterinary medicine can be an arduous journey. It comes with an incredible weight of obligation and responsibility. It’s a burden.

But goodness, it’s a beautiful burden. Because being in a leadership position is also a gift. It’s an opportunity to have a meaningful, positive impact on deserving people. By simply leaning into the behaviors of positive leadership we can help people enjoy a deeper sense of personal and professional wellbeing. As it turns out, when that happens, they are likely to accomplish meaningful things in a way that elevates fulfillment and helps them thrive.

And when the team thrives, so does the leader.

Ready to embrace the beautiful burden of leadership? Here are 4 evidence-based things to focus on:

  1. Invite the voice and perspective of team members. People who feel their voice is valued do better.

  2. Show people how they, and their work, matters – to you, their teammates, and the clients and patients your clinic serves. People who feel as if they matter do better.

  3. Empower team members with meaningful goals, the tools to achieve them, and recognition of the progress along the way. People who feel as if they are growing do better.

  4. Connect with team members in meaningful ways. People who feel genuinely cared for do better.

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