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Leadership: A conversation with Joanne Disch, AARP Board Chair


Joanne Disch, PhD, RN, FAAN, always knew she’d be a leader, but she didn’t envision chairing the board of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the world’s largest nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization, with 38 million members and 2,000 employees.“I didn’t imagine I would be a leader in AARP, but the position is congruent with who I am and what I love to do,” said Disch. “It’s about leading and bringing a bright group of people together to move toward a preferred course of action. I love to be in the thick of things.”
Disch has been in the thick of things in hospitals, nursing schools, and professional organizations throughout her career, which began in high school in the 1960s, when she was a nursing assistant at a Madison, Wisconsin hospital.
She has served as interim dean of the University of Minnesota School of Nursing, where she directs the Katharine J. Densford International Center for Nursing Leadership. She also is a board member of Allina Hospitals and Clinics and served on the board of the American Academy of Nursing. She has held leadership positions in the American Nurses Association, American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, and the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.

An outsider’s perspective at AARP
At the encouragement of her friends, most of whom are long-time nursing colleagues, Disch applied for one of six open AARP board positions in 2001. She used her lack of experience within AARP to her advantage, convincing the nominating committee that AARP would benefit from the perspective of someone on the outside who wasn’t burdened by historical traditions.
Disch chose AARP because she says it gives her the opportunity to influence critical societal issues—health care, social justice, Social Security, and livable communities.
“It is such a privilege to be right in the middle of advancing social change,” she said. “I’ve spoken at a press conference urging Health and Human Services Administrator Michael Leavitt to negotiate for Medi­care beneficiaries. What a phenomenal opportunity!”
Disch has promoted AARP’s “Divided We Fail” campaign, a national dialogue on the need for affordable, quality health care and long-term economic security for seniors and future generations. She asks all nurses to visit the AARP website ( and share their thoughts, wisdom, and suggestions about healthcare delivery.

Relationships are key
How did Disch make her ascent to AARP board chair over her 40-year nursing career? “Relationships,” she said. “I ascribe to the saying, ‘Information is power, but relationships are key.’”
Disch has built networks of friends and colleagues around the country. She grew up and went to nursing school in Madison, Wisconsin, received her master’s degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and completed her doctoral work at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She has worked in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis.
“I often tell my nursing students that living and working in extremely different parts of the country have taught me how to relate to all types of people,” she said.
Disch honed her leadership skills on the job and in her professional nursing organizations. “I have been a member of Sigma Theta Tau International for 31 years,” Disch says. “I’ve been a member of ANA just as long. These organizations are the foundational groups of nursing scholars and thought leaders. I stay active because I continue to get stimulated and exposed to different ways of thinking.”Nursing lens
Disch believes nurses make exceptional board members because of what she calls the nursing lens—a holistic, balanced, and pragmatic viewpoint.
“Nurses consider the whole picture of a patient’s illness and recovery—the patient’s family, work, and relationships and how the patient’s lifestyle must be adjusted to a medical condition,” said Disch. “When nurses sit on boards they bring this perspective—the ability to see and address issues from all angles.
“We also make great board members because we’re so practical. Nurses cut through to the quick.”
Disch has encouraged AARP board members to change their beliefs and language toward a more
patient-focused delivery model. “In the past, when board members talked about a patient’s ‘medical home’ it was always with a physician,” said Disch. “Now, we talk about a patient’s ‘healthcare home,’ which can be with a nurse practitioner, a social worker, or a physical therapist, for example.”
Nurses as agents of change
Disch is bringing up the next generation of nursing change agents. At the University of Minnesota School of Nursing, she assigns senior nursing students to write compelling, succinct letters to effect change on a topic of their choice. Students have sent letters to the nursing school dean to add international learning experiences to the curriculum, to a congressman to provide improved support for military personnel returning from service, to a restaurant owner to ban smoking, and to a city trustee to build a park playground. The arguments must be evidence-based and include supporting data.
“In every letter, you can always trace the argument back to the nurse’s concern for people and their need for health, balance, and dignity,” Disch said. “It’s why I love nursing and why all nurses should be in the center of change.” She will step down as AARP Board Chair in May when her term is over.

Leslie Flowers is a freelance writer.

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