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Leaders and leadership play a key role in nursing at all times and are absolutely vital in a period of crisis. DailyNurse spoke with leadership expert Dr. Marion Broome (Ph.D, RN, FAAN), Dean of the Duke University School of Nursing and co-editor of Transformational Leadership in Nursing, to find out what it is that makes someone a leader, what leaders do, and how people can develop their own leadership qualities.
What it means to be a “transformational” leader
Marion Broome: I think it’s a perfect time to talk about this. First, all leaders, ie. transformative leaders, transactional leaders, can be found throughout any organization. If you’re a bedside nurse you can see them throughout the entire organization, including among your colleagues and yourself. Transformative leaders tend to be those who can see themselves taking charge of a situation. And I don’t mean in terms of authority, but in realizing how a situation is affecting other people, using their talents and skills to reach out to other people to help them to communicate, and help them listen to other people. They help people to reframe if things are getting very negative; help individuals to see their own strengths, and mobilize those strengths to deal with whatever situations people are dealing with. Transformational leadership is about investing in others. And it’s never been more important than when times get hard—such as the time we’re living through now.
Transformational leaders will look at different opportunities. They’ll see ways that they can improve things. They’ll see the gaps, they’ll see the needs, and they’ll point those out, but they’ll also try to encourage other people to use their talents to address those and thereby build their own leadership strengths.
Finding your strengths
MB: People don’t really understand what their own strengths are many times. [Some leaders] just think that anybody can be good with other people—and that could not be less true! I coached this one young leader-nurse, and she was very high on the emotional intelligence level. She was always supporting other people, and always gathering information to share with other people—and people looked to her—they really reached out to her when they wanted to get “the truth,” or when everybody was saying “what are you going to do about this?” Everybody is not like that. If everybody was like that, nobody would be reaching out to you as a leader.
There are so many strengths that people can bring to the table, and not only people who are in a leadership position. That’s a big misconception: that leaders are leaders only because they are in a formal position.
I probably spend half my time with young leaders pointing out their strengths. I use the StrengthsFinder, in fact (the book by Tom Rath) with young leaders, emerging leaders, so they can take a quick assessment, find their Top 5 CliftonStrengths, and it usually resonates with them. And they’ll say — these are Ph.D. students, DNP students — “I never thought about that before. I never knew that I’m (for instance) a lifelong learner, or that I’m a visionary; I never thought that about myself.” Someone, when they’re first starting out, should spend time getting insight about themselves, their strengths, and areas in which they’re perhaps not so strong. There are so many strengths that people can bring to the table, and not only people who are in a leadership position. That’s a big misconception: that leaders are leaders only because they are in a formal position.
We all have examples of people who are in leadership positions who don’t really know how to lead other people. Who don’t know how to be empathetic; don’t know how to think strategically; don’t know how to reach out and communicate with others. We have seen instance upon instance of this.
People can act as leaders, even when they’re not in leadership positions
MB: We all know them. Whether you’re working on a hospital unit, or in a community or an agency—they are the go-to person. As I mentioned earlier that’s the person who everybody goes to get information. It’s the person they go to to make sense of that information, and the person that they trust to share their own information or their own response to whatever is going on. Those are the informal (yet strong) leaders in the organization. And those leaders oftentimes don’t want an official leadership position. They are not necessarily comfortable with communicating to large groups. They’re not necessarily comfortable with being focused on as the leader, but they are so powerful in organizations. And formal leaders really need to make sure they know who those people are, so they can work with them and leverage their skills and networks.
Making use of other people’s abilities and leadership skills
MB: To me, leadership is all about the people; it’s not about the person (ie the formal leader). And I think that where some leaders get into trouble, when they are threatened by other strong leaders they work with. It is as if , when they work with a really strong leader who has complemental skills, they feel “less than.” For instance, I have a leader on my executive team who has a remarkable ability to bring people along to new ideas, new ways of seeing things and doing things—even when they don’t want to come along! And, at the same time, as they think and try on new things they change the way they’re framing things. It’s just remarkable. When I listen to her, how she talks to people, or read her emails, I think, “that is amazing!” It’s not me; I do different things in different ways as a leader—but wow—do you want somebody like that on your team? Without question. And the reason you want somebody like that on the team is that they really support other people and bring them along, and grow them…
The reality is, when that person and I agree about the concept/message we’re trying to put out, then we each have to do our part. She’s got to communicate it in her way, and I’ll communicate it in mine. And we have to back each other up. How she does it is very awe-inspiring to watch, and I don’t feel like it makes me any less of a leader. In fact, I think it strengthens peoples’ perception of all the formal leaders in the organization. I have ten other leaders as well, with different strengths. You can’t do it all! You just simply cannot do it all in any organization. You have to share, and you have to give and get input—what I know is any idea I’ve ever come up with is better once I get input and recraft it.
First step toward leadership: learn to know yourself
MB: There’s so much focus now on developing new leaders, because the former leaders (ie like me) are all getting older. [To develop as a leader,] the number one thing is to get to know yourself. Know what you do well; know what you don’t do so well. When I was younger, I was very, very direct. Now I’m still known for my directness and my honesty, and most people frame it as refreshing—that they always know what I’m thinking– but when I was younger, I didn’t give as much thought to how I said something, or when I said something, or to whom I said it. And I had some very honest and straightforward mentors who were wonderful to me, but who gently—and sometimes, not so gently—said to me, “you really need to take a look at how you’re saying things and what you’re saying. Because you have great ideas, but people can’t hear them.” They said, “people may be listening, but they’re not going to really hear what you’re saying, and they’re not going to be able to take it in, because it’s too threatening.”
The number one thing is to get to know yourself. Know what you do well; know what you don’t do so well.
I was always good with people one-to-one, but I questioned the system. ALL the time. The reality is, though, once you question a system, saying things like, “why are we still doing this this way?” or “there’s a better way of doing this.,” you’re indirectly affecting the people who do it, you’re indirectly criticizing them. So the advice I got was so valuable for me—I was in my late 20s—so valuable. And all you have to do is make some little change in how you say or do things, and you can get such positive feedback. That’s what I’ve always kind of focused on: learning all you can about yourself. You don’t have to be strong in everything. If you watch yourself and observe yourself, you’ll know what you’re really, really good at, and if you share what you think with other people or [share] their strengths, you’ll be building a team.