As nurses, we are frequently expected to lead the way for improving patient care, advocating for patient rights, and enhancing educational preparation of our nursing students. Different situations call for us to be proactive or reactive. On occasion, many of us in academia are challenged because, as leaders, we do not always have someone readily available to consult for advice. As a nurse educator, I have found that I love academia and working with nursing students to help them become competent practicing nurses. However, navigating the systems of the university has sometimes been complicated, and I have yearned for a mentor who could teach me skills and deepen my understanding of it all.
In 2014, the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International (STTI) began seeking applications for the inaugural cohort of the Experienced Nurse Faculty Leadership Academy (ENFLA). The academy is a 12-month leadership development experience designed for nurse educators with at least seven years of experience who want a boost in their academic careers through leadership, mentoring, and personal goal setting to advance nursing education. I was certain that ENFLA was made for me, and the timing was perfect.
The application process helped me to reflect on my academic career achievements and short- and long-term goals and objectives—and also to be brutally honest with myself about where I was professionally at that time. When I reflected on my educational career path, I saw myself as proactive. However, I realized I had room to grow in my proactivity and problem-solving. This personal insight made me even more excited about getting involved with ENFLA. Furthermore, the leaders at my workplace were very supportive of my application to ENFLA and the opportunities it afforded.
Once accepted to ENFLA, Scholars, as we were called, were assigned a Mentor and an STTI Faculty Advisor who were experts in the areas each of us chose to pursue for the final project. I was fortunate to have two exceptional leaders in interprofessional education (IPE), the main topic of my ENFLA project. Not only did we collaborate on my final project, we also regularly worked together as I learned to better navigate academia.
ENFLA is set up to take Scholars step by step through leadership issues in academia using monthly learning activities such as discussion boards, reading and writing assignments, daily journaling, and intensive in-person workshops. Two of the biggest tasks are to 1) plan and execute a leadership project and 2) construct an individualized leadership progression plan. I discussed each of these tasks with my Mentor and Faculty Advisor on an ongoing basis. The Interprofessional Education (IPE) Committee at my workplace intrigued me, and I decided to spearhead a workshop for students. Faculty members from four professional schools and I formed my ENFLA IPE committee and worked on this project. It evolved into a true IPE committee, where each member was an equal partner. This opportunity helped me view leadership through a more collaborative lens and proactively identify and solve group-process issues. Ultimately, committee members will collaborate in writing an article about the workshop.
The multiple layers of assignments, discussions, and lectures enriched my experience with ENFLA in a way I had not expected. I was able to grow through these opportunities as well as reflect on everything I was doing in academia. My Mentor taught me strategies pertaining to group process, conflict resolution, and a myriad of other topics. Having a neutral person with whom to discuss what I was learning was exceptionally helpful in my journey. My ENFLA Mentor and Faculty Advisor were key to my success in the program.
Building relationships and networking with the other eight ENFLA Scholars and Faculty Advisors have been wonderful experiences. Through these relationships, I realized that my concerns are not unique but are experienced by many academics.
The various challenges in academia that ENFLA Scholars face have been easier to overcome through our support for each other and the knowledge we have gleaned through ENFLA. Our ongoing discussions and shared experiences helped me understand that some unanticipated situations call for a reactive response. Being appropriately reactive to these situations also makes a leader strong.
Another vital component of the yearlong ENFLA was understanding that time frames in academia can be different from those in the clinical setting. In academia, issues are not as emergent as in the clinical setting and, therefore, are handled differently. Initially, an issue in academia is examined through exhaustive research, which leads to a plan of change. This deliberate, thoughtful process has its advantages and disadvantages, but it solidified my view of the promise of evolving opportunities found in academia.
My ENFLA leadership journey has led me to a better understanding of academia and the unlimited opportunities available to a true educational leader. I have learned that, while leadership is at times reactive, it should also be proactive. Both are essential strategies for successful leadership. The Experienced Nurse Faculty Leadership Academy gave me new tools and the experiences I need to excel in academic leadership—now and in the future.
Pennie Sessler Branden, PhD, RN, CNM, is an assistant professor at Sacred Heart University College of Nursing in Fairfield, Connecticut, USA.