28 Jun What Leaders Can Learn From Nurses

The word leader doesn’t usually conjure up an image of a nurse.  When I met Mary with her small stature, red hair and glasses, I wasn’t thinking leader either.  What I found in watching Mary interact with her patients and their families was a woman that has all the skills and traits of a leader albeit unassuming.

First, Mary knows herself.  She loves what she does, she knows her patients, and she knows her professional limitations.  She also has the uncanny ability to balance optimism and realism with regard to the ultimate outcomes her patients will achieve.  This helps her set realistic goals for her patients, and makes her genuinely and sincerely praise even the slightest progress she observes.

Mary is also mentally tough.  Many of her patients have very serious conditions, and she knows how to care, but remain a bit detached.  For many of these patients, “status quo” is a good thing.  Wounds don’t heal – chronic conditions worsen, and overall physical and mental faculties decline.  Despite what could be overwhelmingly depressing, Mary has the requisite “sunny disposition.”  Moreover, her attitude is mirrored by her patients.  Their faces literally light up when they see her, because she brings hope – eternal hope.

To paraphrase  Maj. Gen. Perry Smith, she knows how to “squint with her ears.”  She’s an extraordinary listener not just to words and sounds, but the entire environment.  The environment is a patient’s home, and she knows the family, the smells, the pets, and the neighbors.  Her assessment takes all this in to minimize setbacks and hasten progress.  Mary is focused completely on the patient, and never talks about herself.  She is the epitome of a selfless leader.

Lastly, Mary thoroughly enjoys her work and the people she serves.  It’s her passion.  She believes in the mission of the organization she works for, acknowledges that there’s room for improvement, and trusts her leaders are doing what’s right, and doing their best.  Mary is the archetype of the servant leader, and I suspect there are many Mary’s out there making a difference one patient at a time.  And with an aging population, it’s comforting to know that Mary is also helping to train the next generation of patient advocates and nurse leaders.

To become more self-reliant with your own development, what can you learn about leadership in the most unsuspecting places?

The most surprising thing my students learn when they start studying leadership is that they can’t become a student of leadership until they become a student of themselves.  Part of knowing yourself involves asking tough questions… and having the courage to answer them and act.  Many of my students realize that it will be nearly impossible to effectively lead if they’re not engaged in a pursuit in which there is passion so that they can display the necessary indomitable will to those they wish to influence.

When it comes to being mentally tough, leaders soon realize it’s a lonely business.  Success has many friends, and failure has few.  How willing are your to stick your neck out, and can you take the second guessing from others?  Are you able to demonstrate confidence without being arrogant or ignoring “disconfirming” information?

In the movie City Slickers, Curly famously asks, “Do you know what the secret of life is?”  And when asked what it is he says, “One thing.  Just one thing.”  Of course, that one thing is what you have to find out.  For me, if (big if), leadership was about one thing, I would say it’s about listening.  A leader can’t understand others’ values, beliefs, assumptions and expectations without listening.  A leader can’t get others to willingly follow if he or she doesn’t understand what makes people tick.

To think that leadership is a trait like charisma, or something innate is to believe people can’t learn to become a leader.  What about you?  Who do you look at as positive and negative model leaders?  The tenets of self-reliant leadership (free will) mean we can make a difference when we’re ready to answer the questions we avoid, and follow up on the answers with action.  We certainly need moral and effective leaders more now than ever.

Article first published as What leaders can learn from nurses on Technorati.

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