Celebrating leadership in everyday nursing

1 May 2012

JO WALTON dares nurses to become everyday leaders, regardless of their role.

Over the past several years, I have often heard nurses lament a lack of leadership in our profession. Some claim the problem started with the health reforms of the 1990s. To them, I quote thatTV bread advertisement:“it was twenty years ago, already, let it go!” Certainly, there have been changes in the health system over 20 years. What else would we expect? Everything changes. That’s life.

I know we have many fine leaders in nursing in New Zealand. We have our Chief Nurse, Chair of Nursing Council, directors of nursing, and 45,000 or so other practising nurses in positions of trust as clinicians, researchers, teachers, managers, and policy makers.

I would love to see us, as the powerful force we are, turn our thinking to the positive. In many cases, thinking and speaking makes it so. Let’s celebrate the leadership we have instead of decrying its absence. I think we would be amazed at what might happen.

Celebration is about observing, respecting, festivity, and rejoicing. That’s what I am talking about. What positive words. It feels good to celebrate.

Yesterday, I looked for leadership throughout my day. Here’s what I observed: a colleague quietly but firmly refocusing us on task at a meeting; an experienced nurse reflecting about the next opportunity to build a junior colleague’s confidence and skill toward further career opportunities; a conversation amongst two academics about course design that would engage their students. To me, those are all examples of leadership.

Could it be that we simply don’t notice the leadership that is all around us? Do we know leadership when we see it? Will we see it if we don’t know what we are looking for? What would happen if we all looked for, noted, and described at least one leadership act a day? It could be our own or a close colleague’s. It could be something we read, heard about, or saw on TV. But what if we named it and spoke about it? Wouldn’t we start to notice more? If we commented, praised, congratulated, wouldn’t we elicit more?

Leaders sometimes have to do things other people don’t want to do ­– but they do these things for positive reasons. In their book Becoming a Resonant Leader, McKee, Boyatzis, and Johnston say: “Resonant leaders are attuned to themselves and to the needs, desires, and dreams of the people they lead. They are energised by the changing environment and create conditions in which people can be their best. Such leaders seek a meaningful future for their people, organisations and communities. They are flexible, responsive, and able to establish and maintain powerful and positive relationships.”

Notice how positive the authors’ words are.

Is this the kind of working life you would like to have? Well, here’s an observation. One of the keys to leadership is authenticity. You will be a better leader (and a happier person) if you are true to yourself and your own values. Furthermore, those values are the key to your own leadership development. Leadership can be learned.

According to McKee et al, we may be born with some traits such as optimism, but the desire to change things that deeply matter to us is what prompts us to learn and develop. As a consequence, significant professional development always involves personal transformation.

We can all ask ourselves: Who am I? What am I best at? What comes easily and what do I struggle with? Who can help me?

We work most easily when we work to our strengths. That’s not to say our weaknesses can be ignored, but our strengths are a blessing to others whose strengths are different. A team needs lots of talents, not just one talent several times over.

At a recent conference, I heard two doctors in leadership positions talk about their management struggles within their own organisations. It sounded so lonely that I began to think about the importance of recognition and praise. I also began thinking about how important it is to see leadership as a challenge and a team endeavour. Don’t attempt it on your own, and don’t leave it unrecognised.

Look for leadership, name it, celebrate it. Every day. I dare you. It will change the way everything looks. It will feel good. Oh, and one more thing. Be brave and ask for feedback yourself – and weigh carefully what you hear.

References available on request.