Presidents Message

Dr. Michael Capel

Effective Leadership

At the beginning of January, I had the privilege of attending the AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference in Chicago. This conference provided some excellent CE on leadership skills with presentations on communication, navigating the generation gap, conflict resolution, dealing with burnout and a variety of other personal improvement topics. While I spent most of my conference time in the House of Delegates and Reference Committee meetings with our executive director, Dr. Fred Gingrich, I was fortunate to be able to attend the keynote address. I found the presentation, “The Science of Inspiring Learning and Change” to be refreshing and inspiring. The presenter, Dr. Richard Boyatzis, gave an insightful presentation on using emotional intelligence and compassion to improve our leadership experience. His presentation resonated with me and provided some great guidance on how to be an effective leader.

L-R: AABP President Dr. Michael Capel, AABP Emerging Leader Dr. Cody Sacquitne and AABP Executive Director Dr. Fred Gingrich at the AVMA House of Delegates meeting.
Have you ever wondered why compliance, be it with clients or employees, can be so hard to achieve? In his keynote, Dr. Boyatzis discussed ways we can improve our effectiveness as leaders by creating an environment where people are open to change. As clinicians, we are trained to identify problems and develop solutions. It is natural for us to begin an employee review, clinic meeting, or conversation about change with a list of areas that need to be improved and a review of what went wrong. However, this approach sets up an environment where the meeting participants are on edge. We fail to create a comfortable environment that facilitates honest discussion, and participants become unreceptive because they are focused on being defensive. While well-intentioned and efficient, our efforts to make improvements by leading with what was done wrong ends up causing more resistance. Instead, starting a meeting by creating a positive environment, listening and being compassionate can be a more effective way to begin the process of making a change. A compassionate environment prepares people to be open to change rather than being defensive and resistant.

This approach has been adopted with success in the medical community, namely with improving compliance to therapeutic regimens for type 2 diabetes. This disease is associated with several dietary and lifestyle risk factors that are essential to address to achieve the best cure rates. Medical doctors commonly lecture patients on the risks of their lifestyle choices and scare them with descriptions of the disease. These tactics have been shown to cause anxiety and defensiveness and create an environment where patients are not open to change. Being compassionate has been shown to be more effective in opening patients up to accept change, thereby improving patient compliance. It is easy to give people a list of things they are doing wrong and tell them how bad things will get if they don’t improve. It is harder, but much more effective, to take the time to truly understand the situation, the motivations behind the behavior you are trying to change and invite everyone to be part of the solution.

Listening to Dr. Boyatzis’ remarks on compassionate communication and how it has been used successfully by the medical community prompted me to reflect on leadership in general. There are many qualities that we associate with good leadership. Good leaders are confident and well informed. They are resolute. They make difficult decisions and see projects through to completion. However, I think it is also important to acknowledge the qualities that are often overlooked but just as critical to good leadership. Good leaders take the time to listen. They are open-minded. They avoid the selection bias that comes by only surrounding themselves with people and information that supports their position and attempt to see issues from all sides. Good leaders lead by example; their behavior is the same when they are in a crowd as it is when no one is looking. Good leaders hold others accountable but do not rejoice or dwell on assigning blame. They respect the past but keep an eye on the future.

Effective leaders inspire change, compliance, and action because people want to follow them, not because they are fearful. These individuals recognize their shortcomings, admit to them, and open themselves to change. They understand and empathize with their audiences, using these connections to motivate everyone to succeed.

Leadership is not reserved for those holding prominent positions. It is an opportunity, a choice, that each of us must make every day. As veterinarians, we called to be leaders on a regular basis. We are leaders when we prioritize animal welfare and health. We are leaders when we make ethical choices regarding the care we provide. We are leaders to our staff and the patients and clients we serve. We are leaders in our communities and the organizations we are involved with. We are leaders when we take the time to inspire youth, help educate others about animal agriculture, and help those less fortunate. Don’t underestimate your opportunity to be a leader to those around you and your ability to create a compassionate environment that facilitates positive change.

Dr. Michael Capel