In this chapter we will explore:

  • How your leadership is perceived, by yourself and others
  • What motivates your leadership
  • What aspects of leadership that you might need to regulate
  • Why and how your leadership could derail
  • How you might need to develop
  • The importance of self‐care

4.1 Introduction

How you behave in leadership sets the standards and behaviours that others around follow. How you lead yourself is as important as how your leadership affects others. In many ways, they are one and the same. A leader who is kind, compassionate, relaxed, and shows humour whilst getting the job done enthusiastically, effectively, and efficiently will help create a workplace that is the same. On the other hand, a leader who is a workaholic, self‐critical or, even worse, a bully, will find himself surrounded by others who support and exhibit similar behaviour, which can lead directly to negative impacts on both human and animal welfare. As relational creatures, humans are incredibly effective at detecting and mirroring the emotions, feelings and behaviours expressed by those around them, particularly those in leadership; as modern neuroscience shows us (Siegel 2011).

Physical and mental well‐being are closely interlinked, and leadership can have a significant impact on the well‐being of followers (Perrewe et al. 2016). Facing up to the complexity and ambiguity that comes with leadership can be challenging, demanding, and draining. Given the known issues of mental ill health in the veterinary professions, it is imperative that those in leadership look after themselves both for their own sake and for those around them. When the job is getting on top of you, when you are stressed and moving into amygdala hijack and fight‐flight‐freeze mode your ability to look at the big picture and make calm, objective, optimal decisions whilst maintaining appropriate behaviour is compromised, and everyone may suffer (Siegel 2011). It is imperative, therefore, that those in leadership ‘put their own oxygen mask on first’. This is not selfish but responsible. In the long run the self‐sacrificing leader does far more harm than good.

In this chapter, we will look at how we can lead ourselves through consideration of self‐awareness, self‐motivation, and self‐regulation, and how we can sustain our leadership through self‐development and self‐care. We will also take a bit of time to examine what might happen when leaders go into overdrive, overplaying the attributes that moved them into leadership in the first place, or who fail to care for themselves.

4.2 Self‐Awareness

Understanding ourselves – how we think, feel, and act – means we can modify and adapt according to need. Good leadership means using your strengths in service of the mission, ensuring you do not have any critical weaknesses and being willing to play to the strengths of others as needed. Self‐awareness includes clarity on our own motivations and drivers, how we might respond in different situations, how others perceive us, and how we can read our own emotional state and, therefore, where we might fall into default behaviours. Moment‐by‐moment self‐awareness is being able to notice how you are thinking and feeling in the here‐and‐now, and this includes being in touch with embodied sensations. Self‐awareness is therefore the first step of self‐leadership.

Too much awareness of self in the moment would be paralysing and counterproductive. The key is to have ‘just enough’ awareness and to be able to explore one’s responses when the time is right, and resources are available.

Insufficient self‐awareness means we are at risk of being trapped in repeating cycles of behaviour and consequence which are unhelpful. What served us in previous times might no longer be appropriate.

4.2.1 How Do You See Your Leadership?

Do you find it easier to list your leadership strengths or ‘weaknesses’? That is as good a place as any to begin your self‐assessment. You may be very self‐aware and have a balanced view or it may be that you carry a distorted self‐image. If you can reel off a list of strengths and cannot even think of things you could be better at, have you really stopped to consider them or is that, perhaps, a bit scary? If, on the other hand, you are hyper‐conscious of all the things you could be better at, and even suffer from some impostor syndrome (it’s more worrying if you don’t…), there is information there; how would it feel to have an honest assessment of your leadership? For many of us, self‐examination and developing self‐awareness come with the danger of discovering and dealing with uncomfortable truths. But from acceptance of our true selves comes the ability to be authentic and play to our strengths.

4.2.2 Forms of Power

Power is an unavoidable, if uncomfortable, component of leadership. Even when leadership is distributed and fluid, leadership leverages power to create change. Power, in and of itself, is neutral – it is what you do with it and with whom that counts. In the leadership context, various types of power are described (Northouse 2019):

  • Referent power. People like you and will follow you because they want to please you. The charismatic leader, the authentic and transformative leaders yield some degree of referent power, hopefully benignly.
  • Expert power. People recognise that you have the right knowledge for the situation and will make the best‐informed decisions. This power is, of course, situationally dependent and may have to move from person‐to‐person in multi‐disciplinary teams.
  • Legitimate power. Your power comes from your legitimised status as, e.g. Clinical Director, Head of Service, Head of Unit, etc. People will (up to a point) follow your lead because you have the legitimised right to make decisions.
  • Reward power. You control the purse strings, or other sources of reward such as recognition, choice of work, promotions, etc.
  • Coercive power. You control the means to enforce actions. You can penalise or punish by withdrawal of privilege or imposition of unpleasantness. This could be as simple as control over working conditions/schedules, or more malign through bullying, harassment, or manipulation. The use of coercion is generally considered at best ‘uncomfortable’ and, at worst, ‘bad’.
  • Information power. You have information that others want or need. It could be financial data, knowledge of the personal circumstances of others (‘gossip’), privileged, or pre‐emptive access to desirable information.

What type of power do you think you yield? In all likelihood it will be a combination of the above, and the significance of different power sources will vary over time and from situation to situation. If you are newly promoted to a formal leadership position, for example, you may have legitimate power and, potentially, reward, information or even coercive, power. Referent power might be present from your reputation or previous relationships, and it may only come over time as you develop credibility and effective working relationships with those around you.

4.2.3 Habits and Scripts

We are creatures of habit. That is to say, we all develop shortcuts (heuristics) that help us negotiate familiar situations with speed and efficiency (Kahneman 2012). Behaviourally, we tend to use scripts, which we develop as effective means of negotiating our circumstances; these may be unconscious or preconscious (Berne 1969). We can find ourselves responding in preconditioned ways before we are aware. From an evolutionary perspective this makes perfect sense; you may not have time to ‘think’ your way out of a dangerous situation you need to react ‘instinctively’. Consider what happens when you see something coming towards you out of the corner of your eye; you might well dodge out of the way reflexively and feel scared/worried/relieved afterwards. Your habitual responses form part of the person others see and may or may not be in your awareness.

Your habitual responses may also be useful or a hindrance; what might have been protective in earlier development might be a source of ‘stuckness’ or unhelpfulness now. In a leadership context, this might be as simple as moving from the script of ‘I am the professional, all the responsibility is mine, I have to do this’ to ‘I must leave this to others, I can trust them’. Simple to say, perhaps but recognising and then changing scripts if needed can require hard effort and support. What things do you find yourself saying or doing habitually? Do you have stock phrases or behaviours? When things are going well, do you jig up and down? When things are going badly, do you go quiet, like Mary above, or do you swear and throw things? Pearson et al. (2018), cite a veterinary leader who says, ‘I think that is my character, being driven’; this sounds, suspiciously, like a script to me. Are your habitual responses useful to you, or those around you? What do they say about your view of, and responses to, the world around you? Would it be useful to change, or at least widen, your repertoire?

4.2.4 Bias

We are all biased. It is inevitable, as we learn to negotiate the world around us, that we will respond based on inevitably biased shortcuts. It is a bias to walk on the pavement rather than in the road, but not necessarily bad. Some of our biases may be explicit and socially acceptable, others less so. We also carry with us a set of unconscious biases that might come into play in our leadership behaviours. These could relate to gender, sexuality, race, religion or belief, gender reassignment, age, disability, marital/partnership status, or pregnancy (all ‘protected’ characteristics under the UK Equality Act), in which case it is important that they do not remain ‘unconscious’ and are certainly not acted upon. More facetiously, we might be biased against loud, tweedy horse owners, or clients in houses with lots of cats, etc. Accepting that we all carry unconscious bias is the first step towards a greater awareness that they may have a direct impact on our behaviours and decision making. There are tools available to explore your unconscious bias, such as the Implicit Association Test (, with which you can explore your hidden responses. A note of caution, however – these tests are not without criticism, and it is not suggested that identified unconscious bias will necessarily play out in your behaviour. They are, nevertheless, an intriguing and challenging self‐examination.

4.2.5 Decision‐Making

How do you think you make decisions? How do you really make decisions? The ladder of inference is illustrated (Figure 4.1). This was derived as a tool to examine how decisions can be made, often unhelpfully, if we rely on our habitual responses, scripts, and unconscious biases. The key to avoid jumping to inappropriate conclusions is, first, to be aware of the risk and, second, to learn to be curious and seek a better and broader understanding of the situation. We are more likely to fall back on poor habits when we are under stress and our neurological defence systems are activated – we can narrow our focus, lose situational awareness, and repeat actions that are not helpful, even if they have served us well in the past. It is important to be aware of, and notice in the moment, situations that are more likely to trigger your own habitual responses.

Schematic illustration of the ladder of inference.

Figure 4.1 The ladder of inference. Our habitual and unconscious ways of selecting and interpreting data, applying beliefs (conscious or unconscious) and assumptions, lead to actions. In the example shown, alternative and more measured observation and selection of the data might lead to different interpretations that might be more accurate and actions that might be more helpful. It is possible, for example, that both Andrew and the heifer are fine after a successful wound repair!

Source: Adapted from Agryris, C. (1982), The executive mind and double‐loop learning, Organizational Dynamics 11 (2): 5–22. doi: 10.1016/0090‐2616(82)90002‐X; and Senge, P. M. (2006), The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency.

How would you describe your personality? Are you reserved or outgoing, impatient or tolerant, decisive or vacillating? There are many shades of personality. Perhaps as important, how you think, feel, and behave may be as varied as the situation of the moment, the people you are with, and the environment around you. That is not to say we do not have default settings, and it is generally those that the various instruments available will determine, but there is richness, complexity, and opportunity in acknowledging your own ability to respond and be seen differently at times, both in the short and long term.

4.3 How Do Others See Your Leadership?

How does your self‐image as a leader align with how your leadership is experienced by others? How do you know? And how frightened are you to find out?

This section will cover several ways to begin to explore how others see your leadership, but it is an inevitably biased assessment.

4.3.1 Mentoring and Coaching

Do you have a formal or informal mentor? A critical friend who you trust to give honest, even challenging, feedback on your leadership. Ideally, this is someone in a position of overview and insight, with some experience of the types of challenges you are facing, and who can access data and weigh up the big picture, then deliver information to you in a way that you can access and understand.

If you are lucky enough to have someone like that, use them wisely. Stories of leadership success are littered with tales of great mentors, indeed the original Mentor, was Odysseus’ friend who he left to guide his son, Telemachus, when he was away questing and fighting. Finding the right mentor for you is important. Some organisations have formal mentoring schemes that facilitate matching, but there is nothing to stop an individual from approaching someone to ask for mentoring (Clutterbuck 2014). In some circumstances this could be a reciprocal arrangement, where reverse‐mentoring is given to someone who might be further away from the root of a business or organisation and who might appreciate understanding what has changed, e.g. socially, technologically, and how that impacts clinical/working practices.

A coach is similar but not the same as a mentor. A coaching relationship may not be specific to the professional context and is a way of working with a partner to explore how you approach problems and tackle challenges. A coaching is a partner for thinking, feeling, and sensing your way forward.

4.3.2 The Johari Window

This is a tool developed in the 1950s by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham to aid exploration of one’s psychological landscape (Luft and Ingham 1955). It is useful both illustratively and practically. There are four regions: Public self (known to you and known to others), which is there for everyone to see, Private self (known to you but not known to all others), Blind spots (not known to you but known to others), which are readily, if uncomfortably, accessible, and your Undiscovered self, which is information about you and how you function that is yet to be found, i.e. is in the unconscious. Figure 4.2 shows the Johari window and outlines techniques that might be employed to access unknown areas.

Schematic illustration of the Johari window gives structure to understand and explore the relationship between yourself and others.

Figure 4.2 The Johari window gives structure to understand and explore the relationship between yourself and others. Different methods are suggested to allow exploration. Note that caution might be advised when choosing what to self‐disclose and what to bring into consciousness. Therapeutic conversations, for example, should only be embarked upon with appropriately trained professionals.

Source: Adapted from Luft, J. and Ingham, H. (1955), The Johari window, a graphic model of interpersonal awareness, Proceedings of the Western Training Laboratory in Group Development, UCLA, Los Angeles.

To illustrate this, imagine Kevin and Imogen are having a conversation structured around the Johari window during leadership development training:


Did you know I was a taekwondo black belt? (self‐disclosure; private self)


No, that’s really interesting. That might explain why you seem so grounded and calmly confident. (feedback)


Do you think so? Thank you. I never really thought of myself that way. (blind spot). I have always felt people would see how unsure I was! (self‐disclosure; private self). Your honesty and insight is so refreshing (feedback).


Oh, that’s interesting. I don’t usually think of myself as insightful (self‐disclosure).


But I think you are – you summed up the new assistant pretty accurately (feedback)!

In this conversation between Kevin and Imogen, Kevin reveals a private fact that then moves into the ‘public’ space (between Kevin and Imogen, at least) and Imogen gives feedback that uncovers a blind spot for Kevin, reducing the size of this quadrant for him and moving the information into the ‘public’ space. Moreover, the conversation naturally deepens, and trust develops in the relationship between Imogen and Kevin as it does so.

4.3.3 Use of Psychological Measures and Tests

There are various instruments available to provide multisource feedback on your leadership and, whilst these are commonly used tools in organisational development for larger concerns, they are relatively unfamiliar and uncommon in smaller veterinary businesses (Table 4.1). The typical tool would be a 360° feedback, which seeks structured and unstructured, anonymous feedback from line managers, peers, and subordinates, and delivers information in a way that is accessible and useful. Whilst these tools are in common use and can be valuable, they need to be used with appropriate caution and understanding and the findings delivered with sensitivity, objectivity, and support.

There are multiple feedback tools available with varying degrees of validation and, inevitably, few (or none) that have focus on the particulars of the veterinary professions. In smaller organisations, the chances of information, particularly non‐numerical data, being attributable is high and this might cause hurt and a breakdown of trust or withholding of honest information. On the other hand, there is potential for the feedback to be used to settle scores. Similarly, with lower numbers the benefit of getting a proper distribution of data around a meaningful ‘average’ is reduced and there is a real danger of unhelpful skewing of reporting.

Table 4.1 Resources for testing aspects of you and your leadership. In all cases, results should be interpreted cautiously and, ideally, be seen as the beginning of a conversation with a supportive other, if necessary, with appropriate training and insight into the methodology.

Tool Examples Aspect studied Comments
Implicit Association Test Harvard IAT Unconscious bias Recognising our biases is healthy and can help make better decisions.
Personality tests MBTI
‘5 factor’
Various aspects of personality. Different tests use different schema. Some are more validated than others. Useful to understand inter‐individual differences.
Multi‐source feedback instruments 360° feedback How we are seen by others Risk of loss of anonymity and ‘false’ results in smaller groups.
Motivational drivers See Appendix 1 Drivers Begins process of exploring effects of ‘overdrive’.
Learning styles Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory Preferred learning styles We may need to modify our preferred style communication according to our audience.
Wheel of Life Numerous Balance of different components of life Helps identify areas of life that might be neglected and need attention.

Veterinary professionals – being so attuned to seeking what is wrong – are naturally inclined to focus (laser like!) on the negative information and pay no heed to the positive feedback that highlights their inevitable strengths; all good grist to the impostor syndrome mill and feeding into ‘Be perfect’, ‘Try harder’, and ‘Please others’ drivers (see below). It is for this reason that all feedback, particularly where it can be taken as criticism, should be given sensitively and with appropriate opportunity to assess it with an objective and experienced facilitator. Nevertheless, a well‐structured and delivered multi‐source feedback instrument can give (often reassuring) insight, uncover blind spots, and provide targeted goals for future development.

4.4 How Do you Want Others to See Your Leadership?

There is a sweet spot where you can be your authentic self in leadership and be seen as you are and as you want to be (Figure 4.3). Of course, this perfect place may not actually exist; there are very few of us who can be exactly the right person, true to ourselves, and in the right place and time. It would be an easy challenge if that were the case. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to have a view of how you want to be in your leadership, and the more authentic that is to your true self, the less energy it will take and, therefore, the more energy you will have for all the other demands of the role.

Schematic illustration of a Venn diagram depicitng the change in situation.

Figure 4.3 Where is the sweet spot for your leadership, where your authentic self, your leadership persona, and what the current situation requires of you are aligned? This will likely change as you and the situation change over time.

Because the situational demands are complex and constantly changing, there is a need for flexibility in how you choose to behave; indeed, this is a prerequisite of effective leadership. What works for one person/group/situation may not be right for another. But it is still possible to function within a range of behaviours (which are consistent with your personal values), and develop that range, so you have a more extensive toolbox (Figure 4.3). There are many introverts who, by definition, are energised in silence and solitude, for example, and make very effective leaders, content to be themselves day‐to‐day but, when the time comes, able to socialise, connect, and get out there with the best of them. They might just find it more exhausting than a natural extravert and need to lie down in a darkened room to regain some energy.

So how do you want others to see your leadership? The gaps between who you are, how you project, and how you want to be experienced in leadership are worthy of careful reflection and will help point you to the right development opportunities for the pertinent leadership situation (now or in the future).

4.5 Self‐Motivation

There will be times when leadership is hard and when you will have to rely on your internal resources to face up and in. Having clarity on what you are there for and what your core values are will help you regain the energy to forge on.

If you have a clinical background (and I am including clinical training here), the more leadership responsibility you take on, the further away from core clinical activities you may have to move. It may help, therefore, to reframe the leadership role/responsibilities, e.g. ‘Even though I am not treating patients directly, I am helping lead and manage others who are and, by being effective in leadership, we can deliver on our commitment to animal welfare’. With this changing mindset comes the inevitability that you have to delegate control and trust others to deliver animal‐facing services. For those of us trained to be in control and rely on our own professional agency, this can be difficult.

There is also an acknowledged conflict for leaders who have professional training/responsibilities. This is the ‘leader/manager/producer’ dilemma (Delong et al. 2007). When you are in a ‘producer’ capacity (e.g. a veterinary surgeon with a contract to deliver services to an employer/client), there is a risk that this production is what you are judged on and valued for. If this is the case, time and energy spent on management and leadership (and/or development of these skills) might be undervalued. There is also an inherent risk that, if you de‐skill as a result of moving into more leadership, then you might lose your professional value and, should things not work out, make returning to a non‐leadership role more challenging. If, furthermore, doing so is seen as failure, some might choose not to take the risk.

Understanding what motivates you can help you tell your story; see Chapter 5 and Appendix for a consideration of motivational drivers and their implications.

Do you have a story? What would it be? Writing it down could help you bottom out your motivations, and you might even be able to rewrite to make leadership an inclusive and authentic aspect of your narrative and professional identity.

Nov 6, 2022 | Posted by in SMALL ANIMAL | Comments Off on Self‐Leadership

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