To pass the time on night shift, I was having a discussion with a colleague about various things affecting the nursing profession.  We covered a lot of things, and one of them was leadership.  It is sometimes (or often?) said that nursing suffers from a lack of leadership.  What does that mean?  What is leadership anyway?

In 2009-2010 I had the great privilege of participating in Course 16 of the Australian Rural Leadership Program, so I may have some answers. Or not.

Leadership is about moving forward, taking a group of people towards a shared goal.  It involves inspiration, encouragement, and negotiation.  It requires integrity and commitment, and a healthy dose of self-awareness and self-criticism for the leader.  An effective leader is one who is able to see both the day-to-day realities that impact on outcomes, but also the big picture that shows what it’s all about and where we are heading.  He or she needs to be able to communicate the vision, and inspire other people to strive towards achieving it.

If this sounds like a tall order, that’s good.  It is a tall order, and the reality is that if we settle for anything less from our leaders, we are shortchanging ourselves.  Leadership is not meant to be easy, although there are some very inspirational leaders who make it look easy.  Don’t be fooled by appearances – it is very likely that these people work extremely hard behind the scenes to make things work up front.

So does nursing lack leadership?  I guess that depends on what standards you set, and which branch of the nursing tree you focus on.  The whole organism has some excellent leaders, such as the Commonwealth Chief Nurse (Rosemary Bryant), but the same cannot be said for all of the specialties.  For example, remote health relies on a few dedicated individuals to raise the standards and push for meaningful reform, but the general tone is one of mediocrity and pettiness.  The peak professional body CRANAplus can and does provide some of the leadership required at the big-picture level, but what is often sorely lacking is grass-roots leaders.  People are needed who are willing to step up to the plate and make their own practice exemplary, then accept the challenge to be role models to their peers.  ‘Tall poppy syndrome’ is very real, but leaders have to rise above such petty jealousies and show the way to improve the world around them.  After all, if you can’t make a difference by being a good leader, or by following one, what’s the point?

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