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Personal leadership
  1. Catherine Oxtoby, BVSc, PhD, MRCVS

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Catherine Oxtoby is the veterinary risk manager for the Veterinary Defence Society

Leadership is important. Both the Vet Futures project and the Veterinary Defence Society (VDS) have identified developing the next generation of exceptional leaders as fundamental to success and wellbeing in the veterinary profession.

In human medicine, effective leadership has been linked to improving organisational performance, ensuring quality of care, and increasing patient safety and cost efficiency. The NHS has offered the Edward Jenner leadership programme since 2013.

The veterinary sector has some catching up to do – although progress is being made, with initiatives such as the RCVS’s online Edward Jenner Veterinary Leadership Programme, and VDS Training’s nine-month Veterinary Leadership Programme.

Leadership is also very personal, in terms of how you treat yourself and influence those around you to behave.

Identify what’s important to you

For many, personal leadership refers to our inwardly focused efforts to succeed – in our careers, relationships and interests. It can be facilitated through techniques such as personal coaching, which aims to clarify and conceptualise an individual’s values, interests and aspirations. Identifying what is important to you – and drawing up a SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timely) plan to achieve it – provides the pathway.

This monthly wellbeing series is provided by VDS Training. Topics are listed below:

  • Knowing what you want from life✓

  • Managing perfectionism✓

  • Becoming responsibly selfish✓

  • Getting the most out of your time✓

  • Feeling in control✓

  • Setting achievable goals✓

  • Personal leadership✓

  • Developing a resilient approach

  • Developing an assertive approach

  • Dealing with difficult clients

  • Worried about a colleague?

  • Fulfilment at work

Reflect on your personal qualities

However, self-leadership requires more than just a roadmap. Personal qualities and effective behaviours such as self-awareness, self-control, self-knowledge, personal reflection, resilience and determination are key to effecting change and delivering on our aspirations. It is nigh on impossible to lead others (well) without the insight to self-evaluate and the ability to define and focus on our endgame.

Articulate a group aspiration

These principles of personal leadership are mirrored in the leadership of others. It is important that those in leadership roles articulate a well-defined set of values and a clear sense of organisational purpose – a group aspiration.

As with personal leadership, mapping the SMART path to success is vital and relies on essential practical skills in communication, critical evaluation and project management, as well as those all-encompassing personal qualities, to deliver change.

Lead by (good) example

To many people, personal leadership translates into leading others by example. Vets are colloquially defined as ‘A types’ – perfectionist, time sensitive, competitive and workaholic. These qualities can manifest in positive behaviours such as attention to detail, deeply felt responsibility and consistently high standards – but we must have the insight to recognise when they morph into destructive behaviours.

The old adage of ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ resonates here – the senior clinician who never takes a lunch break, the medic who is unwilling to delegate, the surgeon who is too time pressured to complete a checklist. These behaviours undoubtedly stem from a personal desire for high performance. However, without the qualities of self-awareness, self-control, self-knowledge and personal reflection, such leaders are at risk of leading by bad example.

A key learning point from the Edward Jenner programme is that leadership is NOT saying one thing and doing another. At a personal level this may materialise as sticking to a decision when alternatives are easier or more attractive. At an organisational level it may mean forcing yourself to delegate or take a break in order to instil that culture throughout your practice.

It’s not easy. However, both personally and professionally, starting with the end in mind is key.

Top 5 points

  1. Personal coaching techniques can help individuals identify their goals and needs, then support and empower them to deliver on their aspirations.

  2. Personal goals and vision are vital, but are achieved through developing qualities in self-awareness, self-control, self-knowledge, personal reflection, resilience and determination.

  3. SMART stands for a change plan that is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely.

  4. Personal leadership skills are mirrored in the leadership of others, which also demands additional skills in communication, critical evaluation and project management.

  5. The ability to inspire and lead others is founded on personal leadership.

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