The Vet Futures Report has identified ‘exceptional leadership’ as a key ambition for the long-term sustainability of the industry. This research investigates what it is like to be a veterinary surgeon in an in-practice leadership position, applying the qualitative methodology of interpretative phenomenological analysis. Through the researchers’ interpretation of the seven participants’ stories of their leadership experiences, the study advances understanding of the work environment, underlying motivations and the perceived responsibilities of veterinary leaders. Findings suggest, for many, a struggle in transition to leader positions, improving with time. The increase in pace of work is relayed by participants, with an ongoing, and unchallenged, work–life imbalance. The vets involved are highly motivated, driven by enjoyment of their jobs, a desire for self-determination and a need to make a difference. Relationships form the core of the perceived responsibilities, and yet are identified as the greatest day-to-day challenge of leadership. This study offers a valuable insight for veterinary surgeons, suggesting the industry could benefit from pausing and reflecting on behaviours. With a greater understanding of the complexity of leadership and followership, progress can be made to enact positive changes for the future.