What I learned as a patient about leadership

By Michele R. Kramer |

She saw herself as an adviser. An influencer? Not so much.

What I learned as a patient about leadership

You can learn a lot about leadership while lying flat on your back in an ICU. The author did, and she wants other nurses to gain the same insights.

Michele KramerAs an educator teaching in the leadership track of a graduate nursing program, I have come across a great deal of information on the topic of leadership. Tomes have been written about it. The latest edition of The Bass Handbook of Leadership is more than 1,500 pages long (Bass, 2008). When my colleagues and I conducted an interprofessional study on leadership, an initial search of library databases turned up more than 400 integrative reviews conducted in less than a decade.

I thought my knowledge of leadership was substantial. But it took a journey to a hospital emergency room with me as the patient to gain new insights on the subject—insights that slowly coalesced during two weeks in the ICU as I recovered from a subarachnoid hemorrhage. I had a lot of time to observe, think, and reflect while there, and I gained a new understanding of leadership.

Three aspects of leadership
Reduced to the simplest of definitions, leadership is the ability to influence others. Power is associated with leadership (Borkowski, 2016). Advertising executives, politicians, and lobbyists are often regarded as leaders, as are presidents of organizations. In fact, healthcare has adopted a large body of knowledge about leadership from the business world.

After reading and teaching on the topic for years, I think I can condense effective leadership to three primary aspects:

  1. Fostering respect, caring, mutual growth, and learning by focusing on people and their working environment.
  2. Motivating, inspiring, and influencing others with a common goal or direction.
  3. Having a vision with a plan and the ability to achieve that vision.

Martha Rogers’ theory—the science of unitary human beings—postulates that we, as human beings, are—not have—fields of energy. And, as human energy fields (HEFs), we interact with other HEFs and the environment in ever-increasing complexity, patterns, and frequency.

Me, a leader?
My hospitalization and recovery helped me view leadership in a new light. You see, although I teach leadership and have had leadership positions, I did not consider myself a leader. I saw myself more as an adviser or consultant to leaders—like Merlin to King Arthur. I didn’t think I influenced people. But in the hospital, I observed and reflected on the following:

  1. The number of people my family needed to notify (each person representing a different group) made me realize that I am involved in a lot of activities with many individuals.
  2. I received an outpouring of concern, attention, and support—revealing that a lot of people care about me. Some I worked with, and others I had met only once or a few times. I was surprised that I had affected so many.
  3. Being me, being authentic, and being present helped staff members listen to me and adjust my care routine accordingly. (I didn’t play the traditional patient role.)
  4. My HEF impacts others. I realized this at a shift change during my last day in the hospital. When the departing nurse brought the incoming nurse into my room to introduce me, she told her: “Don’t you feel the difference in this room? It’s so calming and relaxing compared to the other rooms.” The replacement agreed.
  5. I planted seeds—some “crazy,” all insightful—with visiting colleagues and the hospital’s nurses.
  6. Our life experiences provide gifts and lessons. This experience gave me the opportunity to recognize that I touch many people. It helped me realize that I lead not only by influencing others with my ideas but also by making an impact on them by dint of who I am and through my HEF interactions with others.

True leaders leave an impact. Living an authentic life, they are aware of who they are and strive to be the best they can be. They plant seeds and hope they grow.

Drew DudleyLollipop moments
Most go through life without realizing the influence they have on others. Drew Dudley talks about lollipop moments in an amazing six-minute TED talk called “Everyday leadership.” I strongly encourage you to watch it. It reinforces the idea that nurses, on a daily basis, impact other people’s lives by being authentic and present. They are leaders. This kind of leadership integrates transformational leadership, authentic leadership, and what Jim Collins describes as Level 5 leadership in his book Good to Great (Collins, 2001).

The best leaders influence not in the way marketers, politicians, lobbyists, evangelists, and others do but by the lasting effect they have on individuals over time. To be that kind of leader, I suggest:

  1. Be authentic. (To be authentic, first know yourself.)
  2. Be present, conscious, and mindful in your HEF interactions with others.
  3. Know that, somewhere, you have planted seeds for others to grow as human beings. Not every encounter will be what Dudley calls a lollipop moment. You may not know which moments qualify as lollipop moments, but you can be confident that you have planted those seeds. RNL

Michele R. Kramer, PhD, MSN, RN, AHN-BC, is associate professor of Lewis University College of Nursing and Health Sciences in Romeoville, Illinois, USA.

Bass, B. (2008). The Bass handbook of leadership: Theory, research & managerial applications (4th ed.). New York, NY: Free Press/Simon & Schuster Inc.

Borkowski, N. (2016). Organizational behavior, theory, and design in health care (2nd ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap...and others don't. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publisher.

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