Called to serve

Extern takes us along on her Veterinary Leadership Experience
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It was only hours after completing the AVMA Veterinary Leadership Experience in Idaho last June that veterinary student Shana Eisenstadt flew to Illinois and reported to AVMA headquarters for her student externship in the Publications Division.

So it came as no surprise when the newly energized student chose the VLE as the topic of the JAVMA article she was to write as her primary externship project.

Much has been said in favor of the leadership development program, which the AVMA began co-sponsoring in 2005, but many questions have also been raised about the limited number of students it reaches and whether the program is making a lasting difference.

Last July during the AVMA Annual Convention in Seattle, Eisenstadt was among the AVMA student chapter presidents and presidents-elect who attended an AVMA Executive Board meeting to express their support for continued AVMA funding of the VLE. Although the board suspended sponsorship at that time, it renewed sponsorship for two years at its November meeting (see article).

A member of the class of 2012 at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, Eisenstadt had already begun demonstrating leadership as a first-year student. Voted president-elect of the UGA student chapter of the AVMA, she set a presidential goal of increasing student involvement with the AVMA. In December she became president. She was also chosen vice president of the UGA Veterinary Business Management Association.

That was all the more reason she sought to develop true leadership skills. Now, by sharing her VLE experience, Eisenstadt hopes to shed more light on the nature of this much-debated program.

Shana EisenstadtLast spring, my school solicited students to apply to a summer program called the AVMA Veterinary Leadership Experience. Up to that time, I didn't know much about VLE, but I knew it was a leadership training program. I didn't really know what leadership skills were, but I knew they existed and I needed them, so I applied and was accepted.

Our first June evening in Post Falls, Idaho, was rather laid-back. There was time to chat with students from other schools and compare AVMA student chapter organizations and curricula. Dinnertime was also relaxing—until a challenge was issued. Each table was given 15 minutes to create a machine that made noise and involved every person at the table. When we reconvened, each table unveiled its creation to the group. Students, faculty, private practitioners, and industry representatives all took their turns onstage and made funny noises, assumed odd positions, and basically acted silly. My group's machine was a cat dryer; guess who got to be the cat.

The exercise was unnerving, since I tend to feel a little shy in front of a group, especially an unfamiliar group. But at the end of the exercise, Dr. Richard M. DeBowes, a VLE co-founder and facilitator, made some observations. He explained how he's consistently amazed by the creativity expressed when veterinarians come together to face an unexpected challenge. So lesson one was on the table—veterinarians are creative, especially in the face of the unknown.

Next, Dr. DeBowes pointed out, "No one is dead. No one is crying." That was lesson two—we can all try new things, no one will lose their life, and probably no one will be brought to tears. That lesson remained with me throughout my time in Post Falls as I tried new, sometimes uncomfortable activities.

Experiential learning was the focus of everything we did during the VLE. We experimented in small groups by sharing personal stories, worked in larger groups to build towering structures from cardboard and duct tape, and attempted physical challenges that required teamwork and communication. We also had daily lectures that were interactive and stimulating. Our lecturers spoke to us with excitement, openness, and humor, and provided us with words and phrases that embodied their messages so we could remember them long after we left.

Every activity was meant to take us on an odyssey from self-awareness to self-management and then to social awareness and relational skills. These four concepts are the key elements of emotional intelligence—basically the ability of an individual to be conscientious and decisive in any action.

The importance of these concepts is intuitive, but how often are we actually presented with them? Beyond this, how often do we have time to test them in a safe space, where we can experiment without fear of ruining relationships, being judged, or even being punished? One particularly valuable aspect of the VLE was that it bridged theory with action. The accomplishments of each day were reviewed and the hardships each person overcame—from sharing personal experiences with a small group to performing karaoke in front of 100 people—were verbalized and applauded.

Shana Eisenstadt and other participants in the 2009 AVMA Veterinary Leadership Experience engage in the "blind confuser," an activity that encourages the participants to recognize someone who is working to undermine one's team in real-life situations.

Intertwined in the discussion of emotional intelligence was another on the meaning of leadership. Servant leadership is the approach advocated at VLE, with the basic idea being that leaders lead most honestly, most effectively, and with the most integrity by inspiring others. The quotation that most appeals to me in this regard is from author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to go to the forest and gather wood, saw it, and nail the planks together. Rather, teach them the desire for the sea."

Servant leadership involves openness, insight, and reflection. In thinking of the ideal veterinary leader, for instance, I envision someone who lives the daily realities of the profession, is in touch with its strengths and weaknesses, and works with other veterinarians to strengthen the profession from within. It is through a desire to serve the profession that such individuals become leaders.

Although the VLE was entertaining and its lessons memorable, the most important program element for me was its focus on the future. The final session, dubbed "World Café," felt a lot like speed dating, but on a more intellectual plane. Groups of seven or eight students and a facilitator tossed out ideas about issues they perceived to be important to the veterinary profession today. After a set time, a signal was given to switch tables. At the new tables, a quick recounting of the topics allowed participants to identify major themes and issues. At the end, each student was challenged to identify a single issue that stood out and that he or she would work toward after returning home. For example, the issue I selected was creating better dialogue between students and the professional veterinary community so that we can learn from each other.

At the end of the program, groups from each school discussed what they would do with their VLE experiences and presented their ideas to the larger group. As a part of this, my cadre from UGA made a commitment to share what we learned with other students. In August, we began sharing VLE lessons as facilitators for the UGA CVM's class of 2013 first-year orientation.

Within the AVMA, which funds a portion of the VLE, concerns have been voiced over the range of students who are being reached and how to measure the efficacy of the program. Some have even called for statistical data. My words alone cannot adequately express the experience, but then neither can a bar chart.

One potential measure of the efficacy of the VLE is whether students who attend go on to become leaders. The truth is, however, that most schools select students who are already involved in prominent leadership positions. The more pertinent question, therefore, is how these individuals lead after they have attended the VLE. Do they inspire others to become leaders themselves? Are they more intuitive, effective, thoughtful? Are they more invested in the future and strength of veterinary medicine?

Although there are certain to be exceptions, it is my belief that VLE graduates will be the ones helping us navigate the changes the veterinary profession faces in the coming years. They will advocate for change, not for the sake of change or personal renown, but for the sake of growing the profession and serving the community. They will be servant leaders.