Taking Care of Business: Aligning the Role and Soul of the Zoo Vet
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2006
Donna K. Brown, PhD
Oakwood Associates Ltd., Maumee, OH, USA


This presentation discusses an approach for zoo veterinarians to evaluate their careers, career development, and life choices for happiness. Zoo veterinarians are challenged to think of career development within a broader context which transcends technical competence and fulfilling the position of zoo veterinarian. This article explores the six components of this broadened definition of career development. These include self-reflection, building community, understanding personality, understanding organizational behavior dynamics, aligning the inner self with the organizational culture, and making career decisions. Each of the components are defined and illustrated, with examples of how the components are utilized in making personal choices about one’s career and calling.


In most professions, career development is usually considered in relation to specific skills and techniques necessary to perform one’s job. This definition might include learning to perform job tasks more effectively, as well as learning new techniques. This is often too narrow to serve a zoo veterinarian throughout his or her career, as it does not take into account further developing interpersonal skills, problem solving skills, and learning to work within groups. It does not take into account the necessity of assessing one’s own self and one’s needs, against the needs of the zoo which employs the veterinarian.

This presentation challenges zoo veterinarians to step back to examine their career development from this broader perspective. Career development is a life-long process and has many stages depending upon the age, years of experience, and situation of the zoo veterinarian. It also involves more than just taking some classes or attending a seminar.

The six components of career development include:

1.  Continuous self-reflection and assessment in terms of knowing one’s authentic inner self and one’s personal vision;

2.  Working towards building a sense of community in one’s work;

3.  Learning about one’s personality and how it influences others;

4.  Assessing the dynamics of the workplace in terms of organizational behavior;

5.  Alignment of inner-self with the organization’s culture; and

6.  Making career decisions based on the alignment assessment of self with workplace.

Ultimate Goals

What is happiness? Dr. Masrua Emoto2 describes happiness as “being at peace with one’s self, feeling secure in one’s future, and waking up in the morning with anticipation of a new day.” This is a simple yet powerfully concrete description of happiness. If a zoo veterinarian leaves for work each morning and does not feel at peace, but instead has his or her stomach in turmoil, something is in conflict. If the zoo vet is not secure in the future, there is something operating within the work environment that is in conflict. If the zoo veterinarian wakes up and does not anticipate the start of a new day of work (more than an occasional day here or there), something is not in alignment.

Generally, when any of these three areas are in conflict, there is some type of misalignment between the role of the zoo veterinarian and the very soul of the veterinarian. Role is defined as the professional position held, and soul is defined as the very essence of the person—the authentic self that makes one unique. The soul includes the personal vision of one’s purpose and the anchor value system that is unique only to that individual. The personal anchor value system consists of those values that an individual uses to perceive and judge the way the world works.

How can this almost spiritual perspective help the zoo veterinarian to be more effective in his or her position and career in general? This presentation explores this question by addressing the six career development components of self-reflection, building a sense of community, personality, interpersonal skills and leadership, organizational dynamics, alignment of inner self and organization, and making career decisions.

Self-Reflection and Assessment

Know Thy Inner Self

The first component of career development for the zoo veterinarian is to become acquainted with his or her inner self. To do this, it is necessary to become comfortable in using reflective techniques to gain a better understanding of one’s self in terms of one’s purpose beyond being a zoo veterinarian. Only through understanding the inner self, can conscious decisions be made about how well one’s personal needs match with the organization, the job of the zoo veterinarian, the culture of the zoo, and the way the zoo does business.

Openness and honesty to one’s self examination is very critical at this stage. Many zoo veterinarians felt called to be a zoo vet when they encountered a particular field of study, experienced a first visit to the zoo, or watched a documentary on zoos. Perhaps parents encouraged their child to move toward that field as a profession. By recalling these early encounters, and how they evoked a sense of self that was only dormant in the individual at the time, the zoo veterinarian may recover the heart and motivation that made him or her enter the profession.

Questions to ask one’s self in this self-reflection include: If you had a chance to start over, would you remain a zoo vet? Why? What does your answer tell you about who you are and who you have become? Your inner zoo veterinarian voice acts as a guard at the gate of selfhood, warding off what insults your integrity and welcoming whatever affirms it. However, do you revisit it often? Is your inner zoo vet in need of some growth, renewal, affirmation, or change? If you think of yourself as having an inner zoo vet voice, how do you try to listen to that voice? What encourages you? What hinders you?

Another area the zoo veterinarian can explore in this self-reflection deals with responding to the questions: Can you only perform that which you love, and live your anchor values in the role of a zoo veterinarian? Is there a different scenario in which you can live out this passion with the anchor values you hold dear to you? What is your vision of what it looks like when your soul and role are aligned? What would you be doing and where would you be doing this work?

Through self-reflection and getting in touch with a personal vision and the anchor values that are important and unique to one’s self, a zoo veterinarian can develop the mindset that nobody owns him or her, and the zoo veterinarian controls his or her own destiny based on what is needed for role and soul alignment. Zoo veterinarians, as well as any employee, needs to make the paradigm shift that they are self-employed in a sense—not owned by any zoo. They “sell” their skills to the zoo for either a short-term period or a longer term of employment. These skills are marketable across the globe.

Building a Sense of Community in One’s Work

In addition to becoming reflective about the inner self and how the inner self relates to one’s profession, insights are needed to assist in building a sense of community with where one works. Community is an outward, invisible grace, the flowing of personal identity and integrity into the world of relationships.8 Only when one is in community with one’s self, can community with others be found. This is another critical reason for “knowing one’s self.”

Questions a zoo veterinarian might ask of himself or herself include: What are the forces in your work situation that drive people toward community? What are the forces that drive people away from community? What is the balance of the forces? Is there a proper balance? How might some of the positives be amplified? How might some of the negatives be diminished?8

Assessing the community one works in, is important to better understand one’s self, and to compare one’s personal vision, mission and values to the zoo community where the zoo veterinarian works. What are the purpose/mission, values, principles, and work methods of the workplace? Is the zoo moving towards a sense of empowered community where the attitude is that “we are all one team?” Or is it stuck in an outdated hierarchy of power and control, “carrot and stick” mentality? How is the zoo veterinarian contributing to that type of behavior? Is the zoo vet a contributing factor to not only his or her own unhappiness, but also to the unhappiness of others?

Personality Preferences and Their Influence on Others

A zoo veterinarian is the leader of medical animal care, but the work is often accomplished in partnership with superiors, co-workers and subordinates. Medical expertise and hierarchical position mean nothing, if others are not willing to listen and follow one’s advice and/or actions. Whether in a formal leadership position or not, the zoo veterinarian must learn the skills of inspiring others to follow in a given direction. Leading involves the ability to influence and persuade others to take one’s advice and/or direction.

In order to be effective in this role, a zoo veterinarian must have insight into how his or her personality style and interpersonal skills influence others. The zoo veterinarian must know how his or her very essence perceives the world, and how this perception impacts on interactions with others. In theory, the zoo’s culture and/or personality is formed by the combination of every person’s attitudes, beliefs, assumptions and work products. Therefore, the alignment of the zoo veterinarian’s individual personality with the zoo’s overall cultural personality can be positive or negative.

One might assume that people are so different, and there are so many personalities, that it is next to impossible to understand and predict people’s behaviors. However, Jung explained that one can understand humans through two common variables that can be very predictive of behavior.7 These include perception (the way people take in the world around them) and judgment (the assumptions people place on what they see occurring around them). Jung also noted that individuals tend to be energized either by external factors (extraversion) or by internal factors (introversion). By mapping various combinations of these variables, he created an analytic model of four temperaments and 16 personality “types.” The Myers Briggs Type Indicator Assessment (MBTI)5 is a test which provides an individual with feedback regarding his or her individual personality behavioral preferences.

It is important to note that this test provides insight into tendencies, or preferences, and is not a strict determinant of what exact actions one will take in every situation. However, one can achieve better insight into one’s self and others, by understanding the MBTI personality preferences. One is able to make better assessments of how one influences others, to make better decisions about what one needs from others, and to adjust one’s words and actions accordingly. It takes some effort to learn and understand the preferences. The best way to begin, is to take the MBTI in a seminar or with a business coach. This person will administer the test, and provide interpretation of results with detailed explanation of the preferences.

The following illustrates how an interpretation of types can be useful in the workplace. For example, a person who through the assessment is determined to be an ISTJ (introverted sensing with thinking and judging) is thorough, exacting, systematic, hardworking and careful with detail. This type of person enjoys working within organizations to improve procedures and processes, and remains loyal through both good and bad times.5 A person who is an ESFP (extraverted sensing with feeling and perceiving) is friendly, outgoing, fun loving, likable, and naturally drawn toward others. This person enjoys working in groups with other lively fast-paced people, offering alternatives based on common sense.5 When these two types come together within an organization, some conflict can be predicted. The ISTJ prefers working within procedures and processes, possibly at the expense of the feelings of others. The ESFP may overemphasize subjective data in an effort to maintain harmony among people, and may spend too much time socializing and neglecting tasks. Somehow, these two personalities must adapt to each other, and find common ground.

One cannot control one’s personality type, or that of others. And it is important to recognize that no personality type is negative or the best. Each style has its strengths and weaknesses, if overused to the extreme. However, by understanding each type, one can be alert and adjust oneself in areas that are known to be pitfalls. The veterinarian can also recognize the preferred learning style of another type, and choose to emphasize those preferences when trying to influence that person. This “flexing” process involves meeting the preference of the other person’s style, while still meeting one’s own needs.

However, not all zoos are created equal. Even if a zoo veterinarian has the most effective people and leadership skills possible, some organizational dynamics may not coincide with the soul of that individual. That is why the skills of learning about one’s self and being willing to engage in self-reflection are critical throughout one’s career. A zoo veterinarian needs to recognize when it is no longer personally and professionally healthy to remain in a certain position.

Organizational Behavior

In addition to knowing one’s purpose, and understanding how personality relates with other personalities in the workplace, it is important to recognize and understand the three-organization dynamics of leadership self-deception, groupthink6, and the Abilene paradox4. One needs to know whether they are occurring within the organization, to assess whether he or she is causing any of these dynamics, and to analyze whether they are affecting the zoo veterinarian’s work in a negative way.

Leadership Self-Deception

Leadership self-deception runs rampant in corporate America. It is a dynamic in which a leader recognizes there is a problem, but does not recognize that he or she is part of that problem, nor how he or she is part of the problem. An excellent illustration of this occurred during the 1840s. Dr. Ignaz Semmelweiss (Reiss), a physician in a Vienna teaching hospital, found that a large percentage of his patients in a maternity ward died of infection.9 In fact, pregnant women preferred to run the risks of childbirth at home because of the mortality rate within the hospital. Dr. Semmelweiss observed that he and many of his colleagues had the highest percentages of mortality. He proposed that the doctors themselves could be part of the problem. His colleagues and the administrators were astonished that he would profess such nonsense. He was shunned and almost laughed out of his profession.

Eventually, Dr. Semmelweiss postulated that fatal infections were being spread among patients by doctors who failed to wash their hands between examinations and their work in the teaching college with cadavers. He instituted a disinfection procedure in which physicians were required to wash in a chloride of lime solution after autopsies, and with soap and water between patient visits. Doctors also had to change into clean lab coats before examining patients. As a result, mortality rates from infectious diseases declined in the ward. However, it was not until much later that his findings were recognized as a major contribution to the medical field. He continued to be shunned by most of his colleagues for the remainder of his life. There is a great price to pay for calling on leaders or our colleagues to recognize their self-deception. Choices must be made to blow the whistle on it, ignore it and live with it, or choose to leave the situation.


The second group dynamic that can occur is called “groupthink.”6 This is when a group continues in agreement, although there is evidence to support the conclusion that they should not. They literally talk themselves into contradicting the evidence, due to fear of going against the group by bringing up conflicting facts. The most notorious example of groupthink is the disaster of the Challenger Space Shuttle on January 28, 1986. The engineering firm, Morton Thiokol, was under great pressure to approve the launch of the Challenger. NASA wanted to launch, and many politicians, the public, and NASA were impatient with the firm. There were even threats of terminating the large financial contract, and replacing them with another engineering firm.

However, there had been too many explosions and the group was concerned. Under great pressure from NASA, the group held a meeting and decided to give approval even though there was evidence that the conditions of the day were not conducive to a successful launch. The O-rings (rubber seals that joined the two sections of the rocket together) had never been tested successfully below the temperature of 53 degrees Fahrenheit. On days with temperatures below 20 degrees, the O-rings did not seal and hot gases escaped during the “burn.” However, at the engineer’s meeting the day before the launch, the decision was made to launch. Some team members kept their concerns to themselves, out of fear of losing their job and/or the contract. What were the results of the groupthink dynamic? Seven lives were lost, the space program was set back several years within the national agenda, and the public lost confidence in NASA, which caused enormous funding cuts over many years.5

Groupthink can occur in any organization where there is some type of pressure to move in a certain direction, despite strong conflicting evidence against that direction. An executive director may be under pressure from the public or board, and may feel the need to move in a certain direction despite contradictory data. A group of keepers may avoid or ignore clear evidence, due to organizational territorial issues. Incorporating an effective problem-solving process that values data and guards against groupthink, is extremely beneficial. In order to accomplish this, it is important that all leaders learn to use effective project team tools and techniques.

The Abilene Paradox

One final group dynamic that may coincide with groupthink, or may occur on its own, is the Abilene paradox.4 This happens when one person (often the leader) within a group, asks the group about taking an action. Everyone perceives that the person suggesting the action wants to do it, so everyone agrees to it even though many do not want to do it or do not think it is a good idea. The group believes it has reached an agreement. Later, it is discovered that the team members did not actually agree but went along with it because they thought everyone else had agreed. The art of true consensus-building is needed, in order to avoid the Abilene paradox.

Importance of Understanding Organizational Behavior

It is essential that the zoo veterinarian understand groupthink, leader self-deception, and the Abilene paradox to avoid falling into their traps, and to be able to provide leadership to avoid these traps within his or her responsibilities. First, the veterinarian must be aware that people within an organization can create some very bizarre group dynamic behaviors that are not always in the best interest of others or the organization as a whole. Second, the zoo veterinarian needs to be able to identify when these dynamics are occurring, to take positive corrective action and/or to protect himself or herself. Third, if caught unaware in the middle of these dynamics, a veterinarian may find his or her energy being dramatically drained. These are irrational behaviors, but the individual caught in them often tries, unsuccessfully, to apply logic to deal with them. This can sap energy levels which would be better used to protect oneself, to help find an outside solution, or to remove oneself from an unhealthy and unproductive situation.

Keeping One’s Soul Alive in a Role

Career Development as a Life-Long Process

How does one keep his or her soul alive in a career? Professionals often think that once they graduate and land that dream job, career development is complete. However, this is not true. Career development continues throughout a person’s life, and is not solely concerned with learning new skills or techniques, or finding a new job. Although these elements play a part, the key to career development is to learn about where one needs to be, to fulfill the true self.

Career issues can crop up by choice, by force, or by accident. When one begins to feel a need for change, the feeling comes from a misalignment of role and soul, from a variety of sources. One might be experiencing a significant life change—a parent or friend dies, a friend or oneself develops a serious illness—and this life change causes one to reconsider one’s anchor values more clearly.

In addition to life changes, the workplace can change dramatically. A new executive director who is not in synch with the zoo veterinarian’s values may take power. Natural disasters, animal deaths, or funding shortfalls may lead to the zoo receiving public and/or financial pressure and new tensions. Perhaps there are industry changes regarding exhibit requirements, or internal management changes in the way the zoo conducts business. External politics can intervene if the zoo receives public tax dollars. Board members may use their position as a springboard for higher-level political positions, and ensnare the highly visible position of zoo veterinarian in the middle of an internal hierarchical struggle. The zoo veterinarian’s workplace is a constant changing landscape. Keeping oneself aware of the landscape, as well as the landscape of one’s inner self, is a wise investment of time and effort.

Doing the Homework

The zoo veterinarian needs to constantly revisit the question: “How can I keep my soul alive in this role?” As a new zoo veterinarian, it is important to learn about the mission, values, principles and work methods before accepting the job. Dialogues with the executive director and other staff are helpful to develop common ground as to the zoo vet’s role and the expectations—from both personal and organizational standpoints. Role ambiguity (i.e., overlaps between various colleagues) must be clarified between all parties to ensure effective working relationships without constant conflict. If there are differences, it is essential to work through the conflicts rather than to ignore them.

A key path to solving job conflict is to insist on role clarification. This concept involves examining and clarifying the relationship(s) between the various jobs found in the zoo. Too often, written job descriptions exist, but nothing is in place to help people understand the details of those jobs, nor how to relate to one another in different positions. The zoo veterinarian’s position becomes extremely precarious if others do not clearly understand the role of the attending veterinarian in zoos under the Animal Welfare Act. How much time has been devoted by all concerned parties, to fully explore and understand the implications of this role? How can these issues be resolved while avoiding the dynamics of “blaming” the zoo veterinarian? Have there been open honest dialogues with the executive director, senior management team, keepers, and others so that areas of conflict can be discussed and resolved? Conflict management and resolution are excellent skills to learn, and there are many seminars available on this topic. Even if the zoo veterinarian is already in the organization and is experiencing the uneasiness of potential conflict, it is not too late to begin these dialogues.

In performing these explorations and dialogues, one needs to continuously examine one’s self and one’s core values. There is a very strong relationship between personality and job-related behavior. It is important to constantly upgrade one’s understanding of oneself—how one perceives the world, and what blind sides or weaknesses one exhibits—simply due to personality type. Having self-knowledge maximizes effectiveness in working with one another. A zoo veterinarian needs to understand how and why his or her medical knowledge, degree, actions, or words might be threatening to others within the zoo community. Zoo veterinarians must accomplish their work through guiding, coaching, inspiration, and influence, rather than through expertise, degree, and hierarchical position.


A zoo veterinarian cannot be successful by simply focusing on the technical aspects of the job. First, one must broaden one’s horizons to better understand oneself through self-reflection on one’s life purpose. Second, through studying personality types, a zoo veterinarian must learn to be effective in relating to others, and to use the strengths of his or her personality traits to increase success. Third, the zoo veterinarian needs to be aware of the dynamics of self-deception, groupthink, the Abilene paradox, and other organizational behavior theories to avoid being blind-sided by their effects.

If a zoo veterinarian is unaware of how to begin some of these activities for personal career development, he or she can seek help through a colleague, a business coach, training, or mentoring from a trusted peer or superior. A business coach, life coach, or mentor functions in the space between individual and organizational values, helping individuals to align with the organization. A life guide or coach helps individuals assess if individuals are aligned with the organization’s values, and helps determine if it is in their best interest to align themselves with their organization or to leave the organization. If the decision is to leave the organization or field, a life guide or coach can help individuals explore options for transformation to another level of vocation or to a new position that enables role and soul alignment for a more fulfilled happy life and career.

A zoo veterinarian has many choices. Through reflection on a work situation, a zoo veterinarian might assess that there is a positive alignment of role and soul, and continue in a successful career. For another, an assessment might demonstrate minor misalignment, and corrective action can be taken. Some development of the tools and techniques discussed here, combined with a willingness to be a risk taker, may result in successful re-alignment and improved effectiveness. For another, the path to alignment might come at too great a personal cost for one’s own health, family’s welfare, and overall fulfillment of one’s purpose on this earth. It might be wise for that individual to part company with the current zoo, with the industry, or even with the job of a zoo or wildlife veterinarian. There is one guarantee as one steps out for this journey. A zoo veterinarian’s calling is stronger than any contract or job. If he or she has a finger on the pulse of a true calling, the perfect venue for role and soul alignment and happiness in life is waiting!

Literature Cited

1.  Barker J. 1993. Facilitator’s Guide to the Power of Vision. ChartHouse International, Burnsville, MN.

2.  Emoto M. 2004. The Hidden Message in Water. Beyond Words Publishing, Inc. Hillsboro, OR.

3.  Frankl V. 1963. Man’s Search for Meaning. Washington Square Press, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY.

4.  Harvey J. 1988. The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.

5.  Hirsh S, J Kummerow. 1988. Introduction to Type in Organizations. 3rd ed. Consulting Psychologists Press, Palo Alto, CA.

6.  Irving J. 1982. Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascos. 2nd ed. Houghton-Mifflin, Boston.

7.  Jung CG. 1971. Psychological types (HG Baynes, trans., rev. by RFC Hull). In: Collected Works of CG Jung. (Vol.6), Bollinger Series X. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ (Original work published 1921).

8.  Palmer P, R Livsey. 1999. The Courage to Teach: A Guide for Reflection and Renewal. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.

9.  Risse GB, IP Semmelweis. 1980. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. (c.c. Gilespie, ed.) Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, NY.


Speaker Information
(click the speaker's name to view other papers and abstracts submitted by this speaker)

Donna K. Brown, PhD
Oakwood Associates Ltd.
Maumee, OH, USA

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