Reflection, a leadership development tool

By Lori Fewster-Thuente and Gwen Sherwood | 10/29/2014

NFLA scholar and mentor discuss reflection as positive change model.

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The Nurse Faculty Leadership Academy (NFLA), sponsored by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International (STTI), provides an opportunity for novice faculty members to develop leadership skills. Made possible by a grant from The Elsevier Foundation, the NFLA was initiated to alleviate the nursing faculty shortage by retaining junior faculty members.
 
Central to the leadership development of each scholar participant is a framework based on dyad-triad relationships. A novice faculty member (scholar) is paired with a leadership mentor from another academic institution. Augmenting this dyad is an NFLA faculty adviser—creating a triad—who provides further insight, guidance, and support.
 
To experience leadership development in their own academic settings, prospective NFLA scholars propose a leadership development project, to be completed at their home institutions during the academy’s 18-month term, as well as a leadership mentor to guide them in the process. Selection of prospective scholars is based on their perceived commitment, the project they suggest, and how well matched they are with a proposed mentor.
 
Lori Fewster-Thuente, PhD, RN, was a scholar in the 2012-13 NFLA cohort, the first of its type. Then a visiting instructor at DePaul University, Fewster-Thuente asked Gwen Sherwood, PhD, RN, FAAN, professor and associate dean for academic affairs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Nursing, to be her leadership mentor. Sherwood is an expert in applying reflection—using teamwork—to improve quality and safety.
 
To illustrate how NFLA works and, more specifically, how reflection provided the focus for this particular project and aided in the scholar’s leadership development, Fewster-Thuente and Sherwood—scholar and mentor—discuss the program below. 

Ainslie Nibert, Gwen Sherwood, Lori Fewster-ThuenteFewster-Thuente (scholar): As part of the NFLA application process, prospective scholars find and choose mentors with whom they would like to be paired during the academy, and they submit this information in their application packets, along with a letter in which they express their commitment to their proposed project and the academy’s objectives. I selected Gwen because of her experience as a seasoned leadership mentor and for her much-recognized expertise in quality control, patient safety, and advocacy of reflective practice. She was a perfect match for the project I wanted to complete. To create our learning triad, Gwen and I would be guided by faculty adviser Ainslie Nibert, a nurse executive with Elsevier.
 
Junior faculty leadership development takes place in a variety of ways. In the NFLA, the development vehicle is completion of a project selected by the scholar. The project I chose was creation of an instructional module, based on simulation of patient care rounds, that promotes interprofessional collaboration of nursing and medical students. While completing the project is important, gaining leadership experience is the focus.
 
Sherwood (mentor): The NFLA curriculum is grounded in five practices of exemplary leadership created by Kouzes and Posner (2007). These practices are 1) model the way, 2) inspire a shared vision, 3) challenge the process, 4) enable others to act, and 5) encourage the heart.
 
By modeling the way, leaders set the example by adopting for themselves a desired behavior. Inspiring a shared vision generates excitement about the possibilities so that others catch the vision for change and join the effort. Challenging the process may be the most difficult of the five practices, because we often do not do that in a productive manner. Challenging the process means taking initiative, seizing opportunities, and taking risks.
 
The aim of Practice 4—enable others to act—is to facilitate collaboration and empower others. No journey can happen in isolation, so this leadership practice empowers others by facilitating team capacity. Lastly, encouraging the heart is recognizing and celebrating both small and large victories. We find joy in meaningful work. When we experience the satisfaction of shared accomplishments, we are inspired, and that spirit is infectious—it inspires others. Together, these principles form a foundation to build leaders who achieve exceptional results and change the work environment.
 
Much like the nursing process, Lori’s project was assessed, planned, implemented, and evaluated. Together, we worked on her individual leadership development plan, which included both personal and professional goals. They often go hand in hand.
 
Fewster-Thuente: Each scholar assesses his or her leadership skills and identifies areas of focus. Kouzes and Posner place great importance on personal aspects of leadership, as emphasized in their discussion of encouraging the heart. Considering that balance became very important to me.
 
Sherwood: Frequent contact is critical to the leadership development process. To know what Lori was experiencing, the dyad, and often the triad, kept in touch on a regular basis—often weekly, other times biweekly—throughout the 18 months of the academy. During these early morning calls, we discussed progress of the project, status of current goals, and setting of future goals. These conversations included a check-in from each of us, because Ainslie and I felt Lori could learn from our journeys as well as hers, so it became a shared learning experience.
 
In addition to phone calls, the triad also met together, both virtually and via in-person site visits, several times throughout the process. Talking with Lori’s local administrative and support team helped us better understand the context in which she was implementing her project. This was especially important in the beginning, when it was essential to get to know one another to determine learning and communication styles, current strengths, and developmental needs.
 
Fewster-Thuente: Gwen brings up an important point about learning from multiple sources. The NFLA faculty advisers and mentors, in combination with the Kouzes and Posner book, provided a strong foundation for learning. Through the reflective process, each scholar determines the practices he or she needs to focus on.
 
For example, although each scholar seeks to develop, in the course of completing his or her project, all five practices of exemplary leadership, I especially needed to improve in the area of “encourage the heart,” to celebrate successes as they come. Each goal has objectives, action strategies, timelines, and desired results.
 
To illustrate, under the goal of “inspire a shared vision,” I defined an objective of modeling interprofessional collaborative behaviors for students and junior clinical faculty. Health care is now more team-driven and requires providers from all disciplines to collaborate, so we need face-to-face learning opportunities to model and teach collaboration.
 
The phone calls were instructive in several ways. First, they helped me stay on task, as we had defined weekly goals to keep the project on schedule. Because I knew I was being held accountable, my time-management skills improved, as did my ability to prioritize. Also, we used a reflective process to discuss my progress toward reaching the goals, meeting the challenges, and discovering what strategies or solutions would help me move forward.
 
I began to realize that it was the reflection that took place before, during, and after these phone calls that helped me move through the complexity of my project. Because my project involved multiple stakeholders who had their own agendas, trying to inspire a shared vision in breaking new ground by changing traditional education patterns proved to be a challenge. By using reflection in our discussions, the shared input of the triad became a key factor in identifying other approaches that could be used.
 
Sherwood: Lori has noted how reflection really became the order of our conversations. In using a reflective stance, each person comes to a situation with unique knowledge, skills, and experience. A reflective stance provides an opportunity for critical discourse on how to bring multiple facets together. It’s the key to change and, in fact, transformation.
 
Reflection is a positive change model. It encourages us to ask difficult questions about what has happened and to try to see multiple views of what has happened, so future actions can be determined. In the course of a phone call, Lori could replay an event, describe what happened, identify what she had hoped to accomplish, and move on to explore strategies to make it happen. Reflection is a skill, and, over the course of 18 months, Lori became more comfortable with sharing struggles she encountered during the project, which helped foster trust within the triad.
 
Fewster-Thuente: Gwen and Ainslie encouraged me to reflect upon the current situation, whether it related to my individual project or my overall leadership development. Reflecting upon a past experience gave me more insight and greater understanding of the current situation. Were my actions helping me meet my goals? If not, why? How could I overcome obstacles I encountered?
 
This dialogue approach proved to be an effective teaching method for me, as it helped me come to my own conclusions about what was right for me. The other two members of the triad did not tell me what to do. Instead, they helped me ask critical questions that allowed me to consider new perspectives while reaffirming what I knew. As a result, I felt I was driving my growth in a way that helped me learn much more about how to be a leader than if I had simply been told what to do.
 
Reflection enabled me to have my “aha” moment of the program. The project I chose was to teach collaboration to students. Good leaders collaborate with others to inspire a shared vision. Through reflection, it suddenly occurred to me that I was trying to do a project about collaboration all by myself, an approach that usually doesn’t work. This breakthrough moment occurred during a triad call. I was describing the struggles I was encountering with various details of the project when, as a result of questions they asked me, I became aware of my need to collaborate with people who could help me teach collaboration. In other words, I realized, ala Kouzes and Posner, that I needed to model what I was trying to teach! Once I realized this, my project moved forward quickly.
 
Gwen, how would you describe the role of reflection in developing effective leadership practices?
 
Sherwood: Reflection not only helps examine where you have been but where you want to go. Inquiry—the art of asking questions—is at the heart of reflection. Asking questions about your actions, your impact and influence on others, is a part of emotional intelligence. Reflection helps develop self-awareness, helps you monitor how you respond to others. Through the questions we ask, reflection helps make sense of events. This process encourages knowledge development, increased self-awareness, and continual refinements in how we react. Through this process, one moves toward professional maturity. In fact, in discussing the five principles of leadership, Kouzes and Posner credit reflection as a critical component in their development.
 
So, Lori, what were some of the ways that reflection guided your leadership development while participating in the program as a scholar?
 
Fewster-Thuente: Looking back, I am amazed when I compare where I was at the start of the Nurse Faculty Leadership Academy to the journey that has emerged. I can see how my reflections helped me change my approach to my job. I think I can best illustrate that by sharing the opportunity that emerged as a result of my involvement with NFLA.
 
When an administrative leadership position became available in the nursing school where I was teaching, I initially thought someone else should take it. Even though I was asked to consider applying, I did not see myself as “ready.” During one of our triad calls, my leadership mentor and faculty adviser helped me reflect on what I had accomplished up to that point, my future goals, and what I had to offer. We discussed my strengths, my areas of growth, and the needs of the organization. In the end, I decided to apply for the position and was delighted when I was selected. I feel that my concentration in NFLA on the five principles of effective leadership was a key factor in my selection. I realized I had the confidence needed to succeed in this role. And, I knew I had two trusted colleagues—my leadership mentor and faculty adviser—who would always be there for me. Knowing that is an important part of building leadership confidence.
 
The NFLA experience taught me that reflection can and should be used to work effectively with colleagues and administrators as well as students. In my administrative leadership role, I work to continue using the exemplary leadership practices I learned from Kouzes & Posner (2007), especially “model the way” and “inspire a shared vision,” as these seem to fit my style and role. As an educator, I also use the reflective practices I learned from Gwen when I ask my students, especially in clinical, to reflect on what went well in clinical and what they could have done differently.
 
Reflective practice and the five practices of exemplary leadership taught by Kouzes and Posner can be used by everyone—from the bedside nurse to the chief nursing officer, from faculty to students. Together, they provide a framework for reflecting on past experience, improving present work performance, and developing leadership skills for the future. RNL
 
Lori Fewster-Thuente, PhD, RN, is assistant professor, DePaul University School of Nursing, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Gwen Sherwood, PhD, RN, FAAN, is professor and associate dean for academic affairs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Nursing and co-author of Reflective Practice, published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.

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