Leadership lesson: Choose your battles carefully

By Carol J. Huston | 11/04/2019

Be selective about the feedback you let into your life. 

In Chapter 6 from The Road to Leadership, published by Sigma, the author advises nurses to let go of the opinions of people who don't matter and focus on people and things that do.

The Road to LeadershipLeadership Lesson #6 is choose your battles carefully. Sometimes we spend a lot of time and effort trying to make obnoxious people happy, but they will never be happy! Not everyone will like you as a leader. Accept those who do and move on. Bradberry (2017b) agrees that not everyone will support you. In fact, he suggests that most people will not. 

Sometimes, though, this is hard to do. I’m sure we can all think of a situation or two where some truly obnoxious person was able to bring us down to his or her level. The problem is that these individuals are likely much better at bullying than you, because they’ve had more practice. And when you try to compete with a bully, you’re probably going to lose.

That brings me back to a situation where I learned this lesson the hard way. I was a staff nurse in the ICU. One of the local vascular surgeons, whom I’ll call Dr. X, had a quick temper and a history of bullying nurses. His policy was that postoperative patients with a temperature of 37.4 degrees C or higher needed nasotracheal (NT) suctioning to keep their lungs clear. Because NT suctioning was so traumatic to patients, the nurses often tried some basic cooling measures first.

On this particular day, I finished morning handoff and went in to check on one of my patients who was recovering uneventfully from a femoral artery bypass. He was under numerous blankets, and when I checked his temperature, it was 37.4 degrees C. I informed the patient that I was going to take off a few blankets and let him wake up, and then I would recheck his temperature.

Just then, I turned around and saw Dr. X standing behind me. He moved to within inches of my face and began screaming at the top of his voice, asking whether I thought this patient looked like a lizard. I was more than a little confused. I was also embarrassed, because every nurse in the unit was watching the interaction. Even the patients in other cubicles were trying to see what was going on.

When I asked Dr. X what he meant about the patient looking like a lizard, he began yelling that the patient was not a cold-blooded animal that would adapt his temperature to his surroundings. My normal response would have been to try to collaborate with this doctor or at least to be respectful. But that day, I just got mad. Everyone was watching, and I was embarrassed. I did the worst possible thing to do with a bully: I tried to compete. I responded, “So tell me, Dr. X, why does a cooling blanket work?”

As you can imagine, Dr. X exploded. In fact, I think the whole unit shook! He was so angry that he was trembling. He immediately left the unit and went to see the Director of Nursing, demanding that I be fired. The phone rang several minutes later, and I was summoned to the nursing office for a chat. In the end, I was not fired. In fact, the nursing supervisor was very understanding—although she did ask me to really think about what I would do differently the next time to keep a situation like this from escalating.

Click here to read the rest of Chapter 6 from The Road to Leadership in the Virginia Henderson Global Nursing e-Repository of Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing (Sigma).

Click here to buy at the Sigma Marketplace.

Carol J. Huston, DPA, MSN, RN, FAAN, is an emerita professor at the School of Nursing at California State University, Chico, where she teaches part time, and is chair of the Enlow Medical Center Board of Trustees. She served as president of Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing (Sigma) from 2007-09.

Read a chapter from Huston’s most recent book, The Road to Positive Work Cultures.

Read Reflections on Nursing Leadership article “California’s Camp Fire: The disaster didn’t end when the flames went out,” Huston’s account of a destructive wildfire near her home in November 2018.
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