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Leadership: What the books don’t tell you


Much has been written about leadership. But despite all the wisdom and research packed into these books and articles, a lot of practical and personal experience simply doesn’t jive with what the publications tell you. So during my travels throughout the USA, I asked the nursing leaders I met to share, in as few words as possible, at least one insight into what they’ve learned about being a leader. This wasn’t a formal study or even a representative sample. Nonetheless, I got a generous outpouring of information, inspiration, common sense, and practical tips on how to survive it all from those who’ve been there. Here’s a sampling:

“What I have learned is that you cannot learn leadership from anybody’s book!”
Bobbie Bradford, MSN, RN; former CEO, Drake Hospital, Cincinnati

“Most people don’t want to listen to you; they want you to listen to them.”
Joanne Schuster, PhD, RN; former president, Franciscan Sisters of the Poor Health System

“The most critical thing is to know your own ethical bottom line.”
Joyce Clifford, PhD, RN, FAAN; President and CEO, Institute for Nursing Healthcare Leadership

“Don’t let your assets become your liabilities. Organizations change. Rethink, retool, and refocus. Identify make-or-break outcomes and be sure you produce them.”
Gail Wolf, DNS, RN, FAAN; Professor, Acute and Tertiary Care, University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing

“The world really is run by the people who show up. It isn’t trite; it’s true!”
Mary Woody, MSN, RN, FAAN; former Dean, CNO, Charter Fellow and Living Legend of the American Academy of Nursing (AAN) (d. 2010)

“I have learned that there is no right way to do a wrong thing.”
Myrna Warnick, MS, RN; CEO, CNO, and assistant professor of nursing (d. 2009)

“The people you expect to kick you when you’re down will be the very ones who help you get back up. Trust me on this one!”
Leah Curtin, RN, ScD(h), FAAN

“It is incredibly easy to reward those who like you rather than those who contribute to the outcome. Give recognition for the right reason. Otherwise, you ensure failure.”
Josephine Flaherty, PhD, RN; former Principal Nursing Officer, Health Canada

“When someone has done you an injustice, don’t get mad and don’t waste your energy trying to get even. Time will catch up with them: Dysfunction is its own reward.”
Hildegard Peplau, PhD, RN, FAAN; Dean, Professor, former president of ANA and ICN, AAN Living Legend (d. 1999)

“Assume the best about people and the worst about situations.”
Patricia Seifert, MSN, RN, CNOR, FAAN; former president, AORN; Editor-in-Chief, AORN Journal

“Be sure the juice is worth the squeeze. Make sure the outcomes are worth the effort. This is even more important when it comes to delegation. You may abandon an underproductive project, but staff will labor on and on in an effort to do what you ask of them, whether it’s productive or not.”
Gail Wolf, DNS, RN, FAAN; Professor, Acute and Tertiary Care, University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing

“Few things are more dangerous than being a ‘true believer’ in any system or philosophy or change. Track everything, and be open to reversing course if necessary.”
Luther Christman, PhD, RN, FAAN; former dean, professor, and AAN Living Legend

“No matter how good your friends are and no matter how right you are, they may not stand behind you in a work-related confrontation, and you must forgive them for that.”
Genrose Alfano, MA, RN, FAAN; former director, Loeb Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation, Montefiore Medical Center, NY

“I have learned that nobody ever feels sorry for anybody who makes more money than they do!”
Alice R. Clarke, MSN, RN; founding publisher, Nursing Forum and Perspectives in Psychiatric Care

“Throughout your term of office, no one will care as much about the organization as you do—and no one should.”
Marianne Chulay, DNSc, RN, FAAN; submitted by Laurie McNichol, former president, Wound, Ostomy, and Continence Nurses Society

Dr. Leah Curtin, RN, ScD (h), FAAN, is Executive Editor, Professional Outreach, American Nurse Today. An internationally recognized nurse leader, ethicist, speaker, and consultant, she is a strong advocate for both the nursing profession and high-quality patient care. Currently she is Clinical Professor of Nursing at the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing and Health. For over 20 years, she was the Editor-in-Chief of Nursing Management. In 2007, she was appointed to the Standards and Appeals Board of DNV Healthcare, a new Medicare accrediting authority. Dr. Curtin can be reached at LCurtin@healthcommedia.com.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or recommendations of the ANA or the staff or Editorial Advisory Board of American Nurse Today.

*With acknowledgment to Gail Wolf, DNS, RN, FAAN, who someday may write a book by this title.

4 Comments. Leave new

  • Its difficult at times to always be the positive one in a team where some members of the team just don’t want to be there.

  • That is very hard to forgive, true. But remind yourself that you did the right thing, and forgive yourself if necessary for trying to help a helpless situation.

  • If ‘dysfunction is its own reward’, then our entire Congress is in for a ‘shellacking’!

  • It is hard to forgive when you’ve gone to the matt for the whole team – and they just turn their backs and let you swing in the wind!


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