Becoming a Resonant Veterinary Leader
By Dr. Michelle Harcha, DVM, MA, LeadYourShip, LLC
What kind of a leader are you? What kind of leader do you aspire to become? Drs. Boyatzis and McKee define a resonant leader as someone who inspires others through consistent, positive relationships and emotions. When a leader and the people around them are in sync or in tune, they exhibit resonance. When people work with effective leaders that bring out the best in them, they have established a resonant relationship. Resonant leaders develop their emotional intelligence to lead themselves and inspire others. They take care of their well-being, so they have the energy to lead in the workplace.
Why aren’t there more resonant leaders in veterinary medicine? Many of our leaders are characterized as dissonant leaders or described as disengaged. One reason is the stress in the veterinary workplace, especially during a global pandemic. How can a leader develop resonance with their veterinary healthcare team? You can do this by taking care of their well-being first, and then connecting with others through mindfulness, hope, and compassion.
According to Boyatzis, resonant leaders have developed and embodied the leadership competencies of the four domains of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Their empathy, compassion, and commitment allow them to create trusting relationships. They create a positive environment where everyone wants to work. They inspire others through hope and a shared vision.
When I ask veterinary healthcare team members to describe the top five qualities of a leader they most admire, they mention traits such as empathy, integrity, kindness, compassion, the ability to manage conflict well, and excellent communication skills including active listening. They rarely mention IQ (intelligence quotient) or technical expertise. When I ask how many of the qualities they admire are linked to emotional intelligence, everyone says, “almost all of them.”
Why do our veterinary leaders burn out? How about the rest of the healthcare team? Can anything be done to assist our team and leaders? What if resonant leadership is possible for all veterinary healthcare team members?
We have all experienced the opposite: the disengaged or dissonant leader. They may become ineffective because they internalize and spread workplace stress. The emotions of the leader, both positive and negative, are more contagious than the emotions of anyone else on the healthcare team. Their stress may result in disengagement shown by exhaustion, anger, fear, frustration, and destructive conflict behaviors. These negative emotions can lead to damaged relationships with colleagues, clients, and the veterinary healthcare team. This is sometimes referred to as the sacrifice syndrome. Many practice leaders fail to manage the cycle of sacrifice and renewal, which is required to maintain leadership effectiveness.
Signs of the sacrifice syndrome are like those of burnout: feeling tired, even after getting enough sleep, drinking more caffeine than usual, not taking vacation days, finding less time (or no time at all) for the things you enjoy, not talking to anyone about your problems, not exercising, feeling no one can understand how much you have to work, and feeling overwhelmed.
The sacrifice syndrome is caused by the responsibilities of patient care, client communication, and the pressures of operating a veterinary practice. Leaders continuously make complex veterinary healthcare decisions, have difficult discussions and communication with clients, and make tough choices regarding financial issues and end-of-life care. All of these have been exacerbated in the past two years during the COVID-19 pandemic, when client wait times may have been longer than expected. Client expectations are high, and most service-oriented professions have experienced a rise in difficult client interactions. Stress has always been part of the veterinary profession. With the added stress of the pandemic, it is higher than ever. One of the problems is too little recovery time and too few renewal activities.
Stress arouses the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which increases adrenaline and cortisol. The long-term activation of the stress response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can disrupt your body’s processes. This puts you at increased risk of many health problems such as anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, muscle tension and pain, heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke, sleep problems, weight gain, and memory and concentration impairment.
Our body and mind have one major way to alleviate the damage from chronic stress: arousal of the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). The hormones released when the PNS is activated can reverse the effects of the SNS. They can lower our blood pressure, slow our heart rate, deepen our breathing, enhance our immune system, and even trigger neurogenesis. We are at our cognitive best in the PNS. We cannot eliminate stress in our lives; however, we can create more balance. Without regular stimulation of the PNS, we burn out and reduce our ability to function, adapt, respond to others appropriately, and enjoy life. There are many ways to activate the PNS for renewal. One way to assess your level of stress and renewal is by taking the Personal Sustainability Index (PSI), available for $9 on the Key Step Media website. The PSI is a self-guided tool that will help you list the sources of stress in your life and identify ways to foster balance and restoration. This evidence-based tool is backed by decades of research on stress and renewal by Drs. Boyatzis and Goleman.
For veterinary leaders, the PSI can help identify the daily stresses in the workplace. The PSI can also help identify the renewal activities we engage in to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The PNS prompts our body to release healing hormones that help us feel more creative, innovative, perceptive, and open-minded. Renewal activities can reverse the damage done by stress. Renewal can be as simple as taking a lunch break, walking outside, meditating, listening to music, or talking with a co-worker. Renewal heals the body and elevates our mood. Renewal supports tissue regeneration, lowers our heart rate, and strengthens our immune system. Resonant leadership can only be sustained through balancing stress with renewal.
Are you a resonant leader? Veterinary practices whose culture and leaders support resonance drive their team toward optimism. They are tuned into the team members’ emotions and move those emotions in a more positive direction. Ask yourself these questions: Do I inspire my team? Do I create a positive emotional work environment? Do I know my team, their goals, and their challenges? Do I demonstrate compassion, first for myself, and then for others? Am I authentic and trustworthy?
Strategies for Resonant Leadership
Consider the following strategies to enhance your resonant leadership skills.
1. Read “Resonant Leadership” by Boyatzis and McKee and “Becoming a Resonant Leader” by Boyatzis, McKee, and Johnston.
2. Read Emotional Intelligence 2.0. by Greaves and Bradberry which reveals a step-by-step program for increasing your emotional intelligence via proven strategies that target self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.
3. Utilize the well-being resources provided by the AVMA. This includes a well-being certificate program, self-care tools for veterinary professionals, as well as the opportunity to take The Professional Quality of Life (ProQOL) assessment. This self-administered tool measures the positive and negative effects of helping others who are experiencing suffering and trauma. It can be used as a guide to assess your balance of positive and negative personal and work-related experiences.
4. Take the Personal Sustainability Index (online assessment) at Key Step Media to assess your current level of stress and renewal. The PSI assessment will show what kind of stressors most frequently impact you, spotlight the types of renewal activities that most support you, uncover ways to bring more restoration into your life, and help you move toward a healthy balance of stress and renewal.
5. Find a way to regularly decompress and de-stress. Regular physical activity such as running, walking, or swimming may be helpful. The practice of mindfulness allows you to notice your thoughts and emotions, so you can choose how to respond.
6. Take care of your physical and emotional health. Eating healthy foods, practicing good sleep habits, and participating in regular exercise are important for your body and brain.
7. Seek professional counseling or coaching, if needed, which can help you develop specific strategies to manage stress.
The rewards for learning to manage stress include peace of mind, less anxiety, and a better quality of life both personally and professionally. In addition, you may experience improvement in physical and health conditions, better self-control and focus, and enhanced relationships. Being a resonant leader means you have to work on yourself first and lead yourself well before you can lead others well. Resonant leadership is a set of learnable skills. Become a model of resonant leadership and demonstrate the behaviors you want your team to develop. Everyone looks to the leader to set the example. Resonant leaders inspire others through hope a
nd vision. They demonstrate caring and compassion, and they are authentic in their communication. Resonant leaders are needed in the veterinary profession. And everyone can become a resonant leader.
References and Suggested Reading
1. Boyatzis, R. E., & McKee, A. 1. (2005). Resonant Leadership: Renewing yourself and connecting with others through mindfulness, hope, and compassion. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
2. Goleman, Daniel. (2002). Primal leadership: realizing the power of emotional intelligence. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press,
3. McKee, A., Boyatzis, R. E., & Johnston, F. (2008). Becoming a resonant leader: Develop your emotional intelligence, renew your relationships, and sustain your effectiveness. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business School Pub.
4. Bradberry, T., & Greaves, J. (2009). Emotional Intelligence 2.0. TalentSmart.
5. Key Step Media, Personal Sustainability Index (online assessment) – https://www.keystepmedia.com/shop/psi/#.Ys2r8zfMJD8
6. AVMA Wellbeing Resources – https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/wellbeing