Promoting Animal Welfare through Ethical Service: Servant Leadership and the IACUC

By Angela Craig, DVM, lab animal veterinarian and institutional animal care and use committee (IACUC) member at the University of Minnesota

Have you ever had this experience? You learn something new, such as an interesting concept or novel word, and suddenly that concept or word comes up repeatedly in a variety of situations over the next few weeks or months. Whether it is a coincidence or just your mind recognizing something that is now familiar, it is an interesting phenomenon.

I’ve recently had this experience with the concept of ‘servant leadership,’ which I was introduced to while participating in a mentorship program for veterinary students. Since then, I feel like I have repeatedly been made aware of how servant leadership can positively impact individuals and organizations.

Servant leadership is not a new philosophy, but Robert K. Greenleaf is credited with describing the modern tenets in an essay he wrote in 1970 called The Servant as Leader. While not every servant leadership concept aligns perfectly with the way an IACUC should function, the basis could be used to promote a healthy and functional committee. At its core, servant leadership is about serving others before oneself, promoting the growth and development of others, sharing power, and creating a better society. According to Larry C. Spears, servant leaders listen, have empathy, are good stewards, build community, and commit to the growth of people. Kent M. Keith would add that they practice self-reflection. These concepts lend themselves easily to the community of individuals that come together to form an IACUC.

IACUCs must have specific members to be appropriately constituted. Without each member’s contribution, the group would lack the richness of experience, knowledge, and perspective necessary to promote scientific growth while ensuring animal well-being. For this reason, it is easy to see how the leaders and facilitators of these committees, the IACUC chairs, could employ servant leadership to make the committee truly strong and engaged. They can make the decision to enhance growth by ensuring thorough training and development of each member, and by encouraging active participation in discussion and committee activities. They can use their voices, not to dictate, but to encourage others to lend their individual voices to every discussion. In turn, these members, who can easily identify their key role within the committee, are equally confident in leading others to promote the culture necessary for a high quality animal care and use program.

An important way for IACUC members to practice servant leadership is to provide guidance to investigators. Thoughtful protocol review and constructive feedback allow members to listen to the needs of investigators and suggest practical refinements. During lab visits members can help research staff to achieve high-quality results by promoting best practices in animal use and sharing helpful tips for remaining in compliance. In-depth mentorship may be necessary for new labs or those struggling with complex issues. Continuing education opportunities provided by the IACUC can help investigators keep their teams updated about expectations for responsible research conduct. In each of these ways, the member is promoting the growth and development of others within the organization. They empower them to take action to improve the program at every level.

By virtue of its role, the IACUC inherently leads others within the animal care and use program. The decisions made by the committee impact the actions and conduct of the local scientific community. If the leadership style of the committee emphasizes service, integrity, and stewardship, it inspires others to lead in the same way. Ultimately, by adhering to servant leadership principles, and promoting them in others, an IACUC can assure a direct positive impact for the animals within their organization.