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Is ‘evidence based’ academia ruining veterinary leadership?

Does anyone else find that all the books on how leadership ‘should’ work, never do?

You go to a training course, listen to a podcast, or even do an MBA, and you take away tools and advice that really does sound convincing. You’re enthusiastic to put it into practice and when the opportunity for that tool arises, you feel a tiny bit of pride as you calmly pull this shiny idea out, exactly as the instructions say and eagerly await the joyous results.

And... well, nothing. I mean, nothing is sometimes the best case scenario. Deaf ears or wasted effort are fairly neutral endings to your optimism. Occasionally its met with active disinterest, workplace gossip, or a complete misinterpretation of your intentions.

The reality is that academia and the real world rarely talk to one another. In fact I once went on a date with a gentleman who ran the MBA programme for a very prestigious Australian university. After some odd discussions where I was quite surprised to discover how different our approaches to leadership were (he asked me after my first week in a new leadership role whether I “asserted my authority?”), it eventually came to light that he had never actually HAD a leadership role. He had a PhD in leadership, multiple peer reviewed papers to his name, and ran the leadership curriculum, without ever having to walk the walk. He’d never fired someone, performance managed someone, turned around a toxic culture, led through a crisis, restructured or even just given an annual performance review. And yet, this is where our courses are made.

Add to that the dilution factor of a for-purpose context, the clear lack of accounting for the difference in how male vs female leaders’ actions are interpreted, the very narrow resource tightrope that has no fat built in for change management or the ideal leadership activities, and the emotionally complex context of the animal care industry, and now it’s pretty obvious why the textbooks don’t work.

It’s not the real world. It’s certainly not our real world, anyway.

That's why I like to talk about “real world” leadership. “Practical” resilience. “Realistic” cultural interventions.

I see trainers and courses in this space spending half an hour on the definition of psychological safety. Or demonstrating the physiological affects of cortisol. Or reminding us about sleep hygiene or eating healthier.

All of which are true and relevant and valuable. But do they actually help us? Do they actually give us the tools we need to make them work in the real world, with real humans, real emotions?

And yet the nature of our scientifically minded industry is that those with a platform to speak, to share, to spread knowledge, are the academics. The ‘best practice’, the ‘evidence based’, the ‘peer reviewed’. They’re great for pushing science further along, and vital for our clinical industry. But do they help us actually live, and lead, in the real world?

I’d like to start more conversations, and more platforms for conversations, about the rest of it. The ugly details, the performance conversations that ended in a bullying complaint because they didn't get the result they expected. The change management you don’t have time to do properly, the pushback you get when you offer a new perk, or the resistance to being offered collaborative involvement (which they asked for) because they don’t have time. Or what about the bosses who want us to change the culture, as long as it doesn’t require any change from them? The staff who want us to hold everyone else accountable for poor behaviours, just not them. The coaching conversation where they just cannot and will not self-reflect. How does the "help them come up with the answers themselves" philosophy pan out for those people?

Can we start those conversations? I’m there for that!

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