Leading by accident and design

“Thanks love, is the vet coming now?” When I started out as a new graduate vet, I rapidly got used to hearing this phrase at the end of consultations. I’m not sure if this was an assumption related to my gender or my age, to be fair it was probably a bit of both, but if I am honest, it also reflected a lack of confidence and leadership on my part. My imposter syndrome was very real, even though I loved the work and the amazing team that supported me.

As my vet career progressed, my competence increased and “proving myself” became less of an issue. I built trust with clients and became more confident. And I began leading – small teams of usually just myself and a nurse and maybe a client – but I was taking charge of decisions and direction, and enjoying the feeling of knowing what I was doing, and that I belonged in the role. Like many of us my leadership skills developed somewhat inherently. No one sat me down and said “this is how to lead” – and in the early 2000s, there was certainly no discussion about the challenges of being a young, female leader, and the imposter syndrome that often accompanied this. I just got on with it. As I moved into academia and started to lead modules and later curricula, again the personal development was missing. What was present, and what I see on reflection, were several key role models who demonstrated that I could do more and go further in my leadership abilities. What’s more, these role models unknowingly challenged my imposter syndrome and helped me legitimise my skills, growing my confidence and resilience.

As a student, I worked with an amazing vet and practice owner who also happened to be female. I genuinely saw nothing unusual in this at the time, but looking back she was definitely breaking the traditional “James Herriot” model of practice ownership common at the time. I’m sure the challenges were huge – but she simply got on with the job and taught me so much about interacting with clients and team members. I’m pretty sure no one taught her how to lead, but she was a truly natural and inspirational leader.

When I started lecturing at a vet school, my leadership skills had to develop quickly. As a new school we were a very small team, and I often stepped up into roles usually delivered by far more experienced academics. I worked out that educational leadership is often complex with leadership by influence far more common than direct management. It is only on looking back that I realise it was quite unusual to be organising and leading large chunks of the curriculum and several groups of people, including far more experienced professors and professional services colleagues, at my relatively junior level.

I didn’t have any specific leadership development until much later in my career, when I was offered the opportunity to attend a course run by the university and (somewhat reluctantly!) did so. Whilst the content may have been fairly standard, the opportunity to interact with others from across the institution at a similar career stage to me was invaluable. For the first time, I was encouraged to reflect on the challenges of being a young female leader and learnt to build my resilience through peer support and mentoring. I quickly appreciated how crucial leadership skills was going to be to me, and that they needed to be worked on – something I haven’t stopped doing since.

My development has been a mixture of formal opportunities, informal reflection and mentoring. I was lucky enough to attend the Future Vision leadership programme, which is a cross public sector course for senior leaders. Being in a group with council leaders, charity CEOs, chief of police and fire officers was transformative. Whilst the context was challenging the opportunity to learn from an impressive set of role models was incredible. I learned to think in systems rather than actions and came away with a support network which showed its value time and time again during the Covid pandemic. I have had some brilliant mentoring both through this group and through incredibly kind individuals who have gone out of their way to help me learn to lead.

There is probably not a single day now when as a Vice Chancellor I don’t think and reflect on my leadership skills. These are continually developing as I grapple with complex decisions and lead my colleagues and students through challenges and opportunities. My leadership skills will never be the finished article, nor should they be. I have never hesitated to take up development opportunities since that first course I attended. Leadership courses may not teach us how to lead – but they give us valuable time and space to reflect and from that comes growth and learning. Role models, many of them incredible women, have shown me time and time again to be brave with my career choices, push my imposter syndrome to one side and not waste opportunities to step up and lead. We may learn to lead by accident – but it is also possible to do it by design.

Professor Liz Mossop is Vice Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *