‘If not me, who?’

Elizabeth Rosser |

All Sigma members are potential Sigma board members.

Elizabeth Rosser

Earlier in my career, I could not have imagined holding a position that enables me to globally influence and strategically lead the worldwide profession of nursing.

I feel immensely privileged to have been elected a member of Sigma’s board of directors (director at large, 2015-19). Earlier in my career, I could not have imagined holding a position that enables me to globally influence and strategically lead the worldwide profession of nursing. Since joining Sigma and experiencing—firsthand—nursing leadership on the global stage, I now ask myself, “If not me, who?”

What attracted me to nursing?
Growing up in Scotland as the eldest girl in a family of nine children, I always felt a sense of responsibility—a commitment to see things through to the end. I wouldn’t say that, as a youth, I felt a sense of what we call leadership, but I certainly believe my position in the family and the responsibilities I assumed stood me in good stead for whatever pathway I chose to follow.

I had never thought of becoming a nurse and, indeed, knew little about what nurses actually do. A short stay in a hospital at age 18 prompted me to consider nursing as a career, and I applied to a local hospital to begin training. Before starting that education program, I had never thought about a career that would allow me to be independent, make a difference, and work on the other side of the world. I surprised myself! My parents wanted all of us to have a good education, but I couldn’t imagine spending the rest of my life studying. Again, I surprised myself!

After becoming qualified as a nurse, however, I was caught by the trappings of salary and position so, for a time, was less keen to follow my original intention of serving overseas. Nevertheless, I pushed myself not to abandon those dreams, and, three years after training as a general nurse and midwife, I set off for the tropical Caribbean coast of South America for an 18-month volunteer posting. I stayed six years!

After I had worked as a nurse-midwife in a small bush hospital for a year, all British nurses were scheduled to leave, but I stayed and led the running of that hospital for four years. I then became head nurse in the operating department and emergency room of a private hospital some 200 miles away in Cartagena, Colombia.

Taking on such responsibilities with no textbooks made me feel extremely vulnerable. At least in the bush hospital, I had my midwifery textbook. Following the step-by-step procedure provided in that book, I stitched my first episiotomy. That book became my bible! In truth, however, nothing prepared me to deliver babies by candlelight, treat victims of gunshot wounds, and care for neonates with tetanus—often without medical aid—and I was really aware of my need for additional education.

My awareness of that shortcoming became even more acute while working in the private hospital in Cartagena. My knowledge of what to do in the operating department was limited to what I had learned in the bush, and I felt ill-equipped to lead. It didn’t help that the local nurses were keen to show me up and that they often set me up to fail.

It was then I learned the importance of thought leadership (Young, 2013)—knowing what you are leading. To learn more, I returned to London for a one-year theater course to prepare me for coming back to Colombia and leading the team knowledgeably. I never went back to Colombia. While in London, I became even more convinced of the importance of education, and I have never stopped studying. Having struggled with lack of access to education while abroad, I became keen to teach others and was invited to pursue a teaching qualification. After 34 years in education, I have never felt so fulfilled.

What have I learned?
Primarily, I have learned to lead, to look positively at what I do and where I work, and to not place ownership on others when things do not work out according to plan. I have learned to be proactive and energizing. I have also learned the importance of sharing the load while taking the initiative to be the change I want to see. It is so easy to blame others.

I have learned to be a part of an organization I believe in and want to promote—and where I want to make a difference. This means taking the lead, no matter what level I’m at in the organization. As I took on various leadership roles, I thought, “If not me, who?”

As the importance of education has become personally clear to me, so has the importance of leadership and development of the nursing workforce through scholarship. Serving on Sigma’s board helps me focus strategically on all three.

Why did I seek election to Sigma’s board of directors?
At the time board applications became available in 2015, I had served on my university board for three years and felt honored to influence my university’s direction of travel. I had learned so much. I had learned to be strategic, visionary, and influential. Just as serving on the university board had drawn upon my experience in Colombia, I felt that, as a professor of nursing from outside the United States, I could bring another international dimension to Sigma by serving on its board of directors.

At the time, I had been a member of Sigma for less than five years. But during that time, I had served four years on the Governance Committee, developed the first chapter in England, and took on the presidency of that chapter, Phi Mu. I was also a key member of the European Region. I was totally committed to the work of Sigma and its goal to be intentionally global and a strategic voice for nursing around the world. I felt I could offer something different, a freshness and additional perspective. I thought, “If not me, who?”

What would I say to my younger self?
Education: Although I started out in nursing not wishing to study for the rest of my life, I now say, to be successful in your career, education is key (Chan, 2002). Education gives you confidence. I learned the pitfalls of leading in an area where I was not knowledgeable. After that experience, before applying for a position, I would remind myself that I needed to be prepared for the role and understand the subject to be successful. Thought leadership (Young, 2013) facilitates successful people leadership. Nursing needs good thought leaders to steer its future and give voice to the profession.

Scholarship: Although I never imagined myself a scholar or writer, a wise lecturer told me upon my return from overseas to turn my assignments into publications, and I went on to publish regularly. So, I would say to my younger self—the one who missed some writing opportunities—publish as soon as you have something to disseminate: your observations, your critical thoughts, your research. Don’t wait for others to publish your thoughts and your work.

Career development: My nursing career wasn’t conventional, and I’m thankful for the unexpected twists and turns my journey took. So, I would say to my younger self, “Well done for keeping an open mind!” And I say to those who are at the beginning of their nursing careers: “Keep looking for opportunities, and grab them when they come. You never know what is around the corner.”

Mentorship: I would definitely seek out a mentor (Krol, 2016). For much of my career, I did not have a mentor, but I see its benefits for those I’m currently mentoring. Don’t wait for someone to tell you to get a mentor. Seek one out, and then listen to him or her. Contribute actively to the relationship, whether in person or virtually. Having someone with an objective, experienced eye looking out for your next move makes life so much easier.

Commitment: Finally, I say—not only to my younger self but also to others—work diligently for your patients and for your organization. Be a loyal servant—not servile—to your organization, believing in its vision. If you don’t agree with the organization’s vision, leave it and join one that has a vision you believe in. Be proactive in your work, seek to help others, and don’t wait for others to help you—no matter what level in the hierarchy you occupy. Be that positive and energetic can-do person, the one who is motivated and helps motivate others.

All Sigma members are potential Sigma board members. Aim for board membership as early in your career as you feel ready. It’s hard work, but the benefits you gain are countless. RNL

Elizabeth Rosser, DPhil, MN, Dip N Ed, Dip RM, RM, RN, RNT, PFHEA, director at large (2015-19) on the board of directors of Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing (Sigma), is professor emeritus at Bournemouth University in Dorset, United Kingdom.

Chan, S. (2002). Factors influencing nursing leadership effectiveness in Hong Kong. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 38(6), 615-623.

Krol, D. M. (2016). The new careers in nursing program: A strong investment in the future of nursing. Journal of Professional Nursing, 32(5S), S1-S3.

Young, L. (2013). Thought leadership: Prompting businesses to think and learn. London: Kogan Page Ltd.

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