Awareness matters

About 55 students, faculty and staff from the UGA CVM met in late January 2016 for the fifth annual Bulldog Leadership Experience, a weekend workshop aimed at giving participants an experiential learning opportunity in professional skills associated with leadership and wellness.

Based on a weeklong leadership skills-building program, hosted annually since 2003 by the Veterinary Leadership Institute, this year’s BLE focused on why emotional intelligence is critical for success in veterinary leadership and how to build resilience. Dr. Betsy Charles, executive director  of the VLI and an assistant professor of radiology at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California, and Dr. Karen Cornell, who previously served as the UGA CVM’s associate dean for academic affairs and as a professor of soft-tissue surgery, facilitated the workshop. (Dr. Cornell is now associate dean for Professional Programs at Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine.)

“Our hope [was] to help veterinary students and faculty get practice and experience with a group of skillsets that they don't get to spend a lot of time with in the veterinary curriculum: leadership, communication, conflict management – all those things,” Charles said. “Students at [the University of] Georgia get some experience with that, but in the veterinary profession we don't have a whole lot of options for our people to get training in leadership.”

BLE facilitators approached presenting the weekend’s themes from many different angles. From lectures and one-on-one sessions to group activities and personal reflection, participants felt their engagement in the program was well worth it.

 “I learned more about myself from interacting with others than I had in the past from other events I had attended,” noted LaDonna Allen, an administrative associate in the Department of Infectious Diseases. “I have also learned that although I may not understand every situation in life, I can empathize with others based on situations that I have had in my own life without letting my own life situations overshadow my ability to understand and possibly lend others a listening ear, helping hand or just a shoulder to cry on.”

“I wish there were little BLE sessions throughout the semester,” said Yaritbel Torres-Mendoza, a rising fourth-year DVM student.

Some sessions made participants feel uncomfortable as they dealt with contentious issues like conflict management and competition or divulged their vulnerabilities to a stranger.

“It felt awkward at times,” said Dr. Robert Gogal  Jr., a professor of immunology and immunotoxicology in the Department of Veterinary Biosciences & Diagnostic Imaging, regarding sharing his personal struggles with the students he teaches. However, he still felt the program was enlightening and recognized its value.

“I wish that I had been exposed to [this] type of program when I was a vet student,” Gogal said. “It would have made me realize that I wasn’t alone regarding my feelings, doubts and anxieties during school.”

The Bulldog Leadership Experience also gave Gogal insight on how his students feel, and what he can do as a teacher to better himself and his charges.

“It reminded me that our students have some of the same doubts and insecurities that I had as a vet student,” Gogal said. “As a professor, I will continue to strive to create a positive learning environment to help diminish these feelings.”

Feelings, coping and resilience in the face of life’s professional and personal knocks are essential skills we should all strive to develop. “We are all a work in progress,” noted Cornell, who is also on the VLI’s board of directors. “These skills take practice and will never be completely perfected.” But, developing the skills is especially critical for those in the veterinary profession.

“Veterinary medicine has one of the highest rates of suicide among the health professions,” said Charles. “That’s a problem we need to address! We need skillsets to figure out ‘How do we handle stress?’ ‘How do we bounce back from what is really sometimes a very challenging profession?’” Teaching these essential skills when there is no time to add them into a science-heavy curriculum is why the Bulldog Leadership Experience and the Veterinary Leadership Institute exist, said Charles.

“Emotional intelligence—which includes self-awareness, self-management, relational competence and social awareness – is critical for success,” said Cornell. “Academic performance or IQ is really only a portion of the equation for success – no matter how you define success.”

Dr. Andy Moorhead, an associate research scientist in the Department of Infectious Diseases who orchestrated this year’s workshop logistics, also stressed the importance of building this skillset.

“These events are sometimes viewed as [teaching] what are known as soft skills,” said Moorhead. “Soft skills can have a negative connotation, in that [some may think] ‘Oh, they’re not needed.’ But the ability to communicate and lead are far from soft skills; they’re absolutely some of the most necessary things that a veterinarian needs in order to be a good practitioner.”

“Each time you’re trying to communicate with a client, there’s a leadership role there,” said Moorhead, who added that leadership starts from within. “To be a good leader, you really have to know yourself; know how you function; know how you react in different situations,” he said.

Gabriella Sandberg, a laboratory technician in the Department of Small Animal Medicine and Surgery, credits the BLE with teaching her the components of that effective leadership. “I had a very naïve understanding of being a leader and I was happy to learn that emotional intelligence and empathy are major components [of] leadership,” Sandberg said. “It seems obvious now, but I needed someone to open my eyes to these concepts.”

Each of us is a leader, noted Cornell. “Everyday we all lead by example. If we do not know what example we are setting, then we are unaware of the impact we have on people.”

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