AACN News—May 2005—Opinions

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Vol. 22, No. 5, MAY 2005

President's Note
Live Your Contribution
All We Needed Was the Glue

By Kathy McCauley, RN, PhD, BC, FAAN, FAHA
President, AACN

When we chatted last month about how AACN’s new standards for healthy work environments were developed, Executive Editor Connie Barden told me about a snag the development group encountered.

“The first five standards came from research, field reports and expert opinion,” she said. “They were pretty straightforward. So were the adjectives to focus each one. Skilled Communication. True Collaboration. Effective Decision Making. Appropriate Staffing. Meaningful Recognition. Then we got stuck.

“To a great extent, individuals can achieve any or all of the first five standards on their own. But what does it take to sustain them? It seemed something crucial was missing. Something to tie it all together.

“Finally, we found it hidden in plain sight. Leadership. Not just any kind of leadership, but Authentic Leadership. That’s where the sixth standard came from. It describes the glue that holds together a healthy work environment.”

Nurse leaders must fully embrace the imperative of a healthy work environment, authentically live it and engage others in its achievement.
We can spot authentic leaders a mile away, can’t we? People believe in authentic leaders, trust them and rely on them because of the visible enthusiasm they generate. Authentic leaders not only live their contributions, but also draw others to do the same. Authentic leaders are skilled communicators and collaborators who involve others in making decisions and recognize accomplishments. Because they understand what is needed at the point of care, they can capably lead the design of systems that work. With authentic leaders in such short supply these days, it is easy to assume the gene pool is drying up. But leaders are made, not born. In his thoughtful book Leadership From the

Inside Out, Kevin Cashman describes how growing as a person is integral to growing as a leader, dismantling personal barriers and strengthening individual effectiveness. He makes two points that captured my attention.

Our Personal Purpose
First, Cashman affirms how each of us has a purpose that transcends our goals and our duties. That purpose is something we are always motivated to do because it gives us joy no matter the circumstances. It links our contributions so that we make a difference in every part of our lives. Have you known nurses who are so adept at connecting with patients that even the most fragile ones muster up the energy to become partners in getting well? They seem to give people transfusions of hope and perseverance at just the right moment. They recognize a new nurse’s strengths and intuitively know what needs to be mastered to reach the next level. These nurses thrive as catalysts for personal fulfillment. They are only fulfilled when they can use their gifts to help someone get through a tough time. That is their purpose, and we come to rely on it.

Listening to Understand
Second, Cashman counsels us about the importance of listening in authentic leadership. “Being with” someone so the distractions surrounding us do not filter out what the person is saying and feeling. This is listening that seeks to understand because it is rooted in compassion. Without it, we hear only what our preconceived assessments, opinions and judgments allow us to hear. With it, we establish a springboard for our own lived contributions because we honestly understand everyone else’s—our colleagues, our patients and their families. Would we make different decisions if we heard and understood when someone’s escalating disagreement and demands mean they’re afraid? Authentic leaders do not confuse enemies with opponents. They recognize that enemies are dangerous because they seek to harm us. Opponents keep us thinking because they look at things in different ways.

On Being Transformed
You may be reading this “President’s Note” after the 2005 NTI, when President-Elect Debbie Brinker was set to put forward her motivating theme for the coming year. But I will continue to reflect on the extraordinary gift of being AACN’s president, something I do each time I write to you. I am being transformed by writing about what lived contributions mean for me and by listening to what they mean for the authentic leaders I have met across the country. They have told me how tough it can be for them. How sometimes they become so discouraged that they almost despair.

Then, they switch channels and tell me how AACN inspires them and gives them the resources to come out well on the other side of tough times. They tell me about the new Beacon Award that nationally recognizes an excellent work environment. About nurses who aren’t just dreaming about becoming certified, they’re making their dreams reality. About residency programs where new graduates receive the mentoring and coaching they need to become trusted colleagues. Through the stories of their successes, I recognize leaders who have stepped outside their daily work to transform a ho-hum unit or chapter culture into one of vibrant contribution to a community.

With each story, I recall past AACN President Nancy Molter matter-of-factly observing, “If I’m not uncomfortable, I’m not growing.” Infuriating though it may be, authentic leaders recognize how today’s pain is another opportunity to reaffirm their personal purpose, to listen and grow as leaders.

About Apples and Worms
During a recent meeting, past AACN President Gladys Campbell pointedly reminded us that the opposite of leader is not follower. It’s pessimist. Author Joan Chittister certainly understood the difference when she wrote:

“This apple has a worm in it” is one way of looking at life. “Look! I got two things: a worm and an apple!” is another. Despair is the first option. The kind of amusement that comes with experience is the other.

Authentic leaders recognize the amusement in their experience and use it to establish and sustain healthy work environments where everyone is inspired to connect with their purpose and make a lived contribution. Thank you for sharing the successes and struggles on your journey to authentic leadership. And don’t ever look at an apple the same way!

p.s. Now that I will have more time, I plan to do some gardening. Maybe that worm will help my flowers thrive so I can live another contribution as a gardener.
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