Leadership versus management in veterinary medicine

Dec 20, 2016 by Edward L. Blach, DVM, MS, MBA

There have been many articles and discussions about the differences and similarities of leadership versus management.  In the Wall Street Journal, Alan Murray wrote, "Leadership and management must go hand in hand. They are not the same thing. But they are necessarily linked, and complementary. Any effort to separate the two is likely to cause more problems than it solves."  He then went on to quote the book, Becoming a Leader, by Warren Bennis, who provided a long list of the differences between a leader and a manager.  His contention about how closely linked management is with leadership is very evident in veterinary practice today.  

Veterinary practice is largely a small business model.  In small business, people typically must perform numerous and diverse roles.  The practice owner must provide leadership.  Their leadership responsibilities would include:

  • developing and communicating a vision for the entity
  • establishing goals and objectives for the practice
  • identifying key people to help build the business
  • inspiring and motivating a team
  • setting an example that establishes the desired culture of the business
  • ensuring that all stakeholders are taken care of first, before taking care of themselves

These are just a few of the roles of the leader.  The manager, who is often also the owner of the practice, must fill many roles as well, such as:

  • identifying and hiring the right people for the team
  • developing and implementing a plan to accomplish the objectives of the ownership
  • establishing a team, the structure of the team, and the incentives needed to motivate the team
  • ensuring that benchmarks are reached along the way and making adjustments to do so

Therefore, it becomes crucial to define both the role of the leader and the manager, because if you are filling both roles, you will need to create ways to let your team know which 'hat' you are wearing when dealing with a specific issue.  It is easier to define the role of a leader and a manager if they are two separate people.  But, in small business, people usually fill multiple roles.

In summary, the role of the leader is to create and communicate a vision and a culture for the practice.  The manager, in turn, is tasked with accomplishing the vision and objectives as set forth by the leadership.  The manager must report regularly to practice leadership to ensure that objectives are being met, or if not, so that changes can be made to do so.  This same structure works at all levels of a practice, such as in medicine, in managing technicians, kennel or barn staff, or the pharmacy.  You have the opportunity to define the leadership role in each area, as well as the management that is needed to get your desired results.  

Leadership and management are similar to the game of chess.  Each chess piece represents a role with specific capabilities and responsibilities.  All pieces are crucial to the success of the business.  Without each other, the pawn and the king will both succumb.  Leadership and management are different, but both are crucial to a healthy practice.

Define your leadership and management needs and establish the structure needed to drive your desired results.

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