30th October 2019

I can’t be a leader because…

by Natalie Elliott, student nurse, Glasgow Caledonian University

When I saw the advert for the Council of Deans of Health (CoDH) Student Leadership Programme (#150Leaders), I found it an odd concept that students were encouraged to be leaders. How could a student possibly be a leader? What are the benefits?

Throughout my life, I have always fallen into leadership roles. At school, I was voted captain of different sports teams, and during my career I quickly moved up the ranks. But I never gave “leadership” much thought.

As an employee, I’ve seen how poor leadership impacted public services and funds. Now, as a student nurse, I can see how leadership can affect patient safety- it’s no wonder, Francis (2013) recommended a leadership framework! It’s even written into the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s (NMC) Standards for Pre-Registration Nursing Education (2010) that students should actively develop management and leadership skills, acting as change agents in improving the quality of care.

Reflecting after the first #150Leaders event, I came up with a list of excuses as to why I couldn’t be a leader. To challenge my thoughts, I have spent the past few months eating and breathing leadership. Reading leadership books, studying leadership articles, observing leaders and turning those negative words into positives.

Before I begin challenging these excuses, it is important to discuss “What is a Leader?”. I am sure we all have different thoughts. Over the years, people have come up with various suggestions:

 “A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader, a great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves” – Eleanor Roosevelt

“A leader is a dealer in hope” – Napoleon Bonaparte

“Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality” – Warren G. Bennis

For me, McCormack and McCance (2017) encapsulates the meaning of leadership in nursing:

“Leadership… is often defined as social influencing: the guiding and supporting of individuals and teams towards predetermined leader/ organisational goals….Striving for relational connectedness, person-centred leaders primarily aim to enable associate self-actualisation, well-being and empowerment as precursors to individual mastery and team performance”

Now that we have thought about what a leader is, let’s make a start on expelling some of the excuses I told myself….

I can’t be a leader because…. I’m an introvert.

For me, leaders possess more extroverted traits. They are outspoken, gregarious and have an amazing ability for extemporaneous thinking and speaking. Whereas, I am an introvert. I prefer smaller group discussions; I am shy and just thinking of public speaking is giving me heart palpitations.

Challenging myself, I considered how my introverted traits could give me an advantage as a leader.

I like to reflect on and consider all the information before forming a conclusion. Farrell (2017) writes that this quality contributes to effective leadership as it allows for leaders to question what they see and hear in order to gain a better understanding of the bigger picture.

I also like to listen rather than talk, which, according to Emauelsson and Lindqvist (2014) makes the team feel valued and more empowered.

I am self-aware, I know my own character and reflect on my experiences in order to improve. Terri et al. (2016) believe that understanding your personhood and being your authentic self are leadership traits that are highly regarded and are essential when seeking 360-degree feedback for colleagues.

Yes, I am introverted. Yes, I tend to shy away from large group situations or public speaking. But I also have traits that can make me a good leader (and I know my areas for improvement!).

“What is REAL? asked the Rabbit one day… ‘It doesn’t happen all at once’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” – The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams

I can’t be a leader because…. leaders are born, not made.

I am sure most people have heard the phrase, “a leader is born, not made” suggesting that it’s up to the universe to decide whether you can be a leader or not. Like leadership royalty!

It got me thinking about my children’s parents evening (stick with me on this one). Ever since their first year at school, the teachers would talk about how they are trying to develop my children’s leadership capability. This got me intrigued. If the Scottish Government’s Curriculum for Excellence (2009) has identified leadership as a fundamental skill and embedded it into the learning process of young people in Scotland, then perhaps you can learn to be a leader?

Similarly, the NHS Leadership Academy (2013) write that leaders who continually learn ways to enhance their skills and knowledge, the care experience of patients and service users is positively affected.

Allio (2009) also supports this by stating that individuals can learn leadership skills and it is not down to the luck of the draw- if you have dreams of being a leader, you no longer have to worry whether you have royal blood!

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”- Socrates

I can’t be a leader because…. leaders never take a break.

I’m a student nurse, and like most other student nurses, I spend my time struggling with the juggle. I have university lectures or placements; essays to write and exams to study for; 3 children, a dog, 2 uncles and a house to care for… you get the picture. How can I possibly be a leader without my personal life being jeopardised?

Stoekel and Davies (2007) write that when the leader sets time aside for self-care, the leader grows as an individual which leads to improved leadership. Ghoussab et al. (2018) go on to explain that spending time to look after yourself, you are able to care for others better- ultimately resulting in improved patient care.

So being a successful leader doesn’t mean always being in “work mode”. If you are passionate about creating a change or influencing people, remember that good leaders schedule time to do the things that bring them joy, and spend time with those they love.

“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that”- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, JK Rowling

I can’t be a leader because…. leaders are egotistical.

When I look at some of the current world leaders (and the historical ones too), I used to believe that leaders had to be narcissistic and egotistical. This isn’t me, so I can’t be a leader.

However, would you describe these leaders as being proficient?

Transformational leadership is where the leader develops and promotes the development of the team leading to staff feeling empowered (Hawkins, 2009). Furthermore, a leader who encourages staff to engage in personal development will lead to the greatest impact on patient outcomes (Kings Fund, 2013).

As person-centred practitioners, our care involves respecting the rights and values of the individual by building mutual trust and understanding to find the true essence of the individual (McCormack & McCance, 2010). Why should leaders in healthcare treat their staff any differently?

Leaders can further improve patient care through having a person-centred attitude to the team and understanding any reticent feelings (NHS Leadership Academy, 2013). Additionally, one of the priorities of the NHS Scotland’s Leadership Framework (2014) is to promote team working as it allows others to have their voice heard, creating a co-operative team.

You see, as a leader you don’t need to be that awful depiction that we often see. You can be the approachable and flexible leader. The leader who actively listens and encourages their followers to have a voice of their own, creating a culture of progression.

 “A little consideration, a little thought for others, makes all the difference.” – Eeyore, A.A. Milne

I can’t be a leader because…. I am a student

How often do you associate being a leader with a hierarchical position? Real leadership shouldn’t focus on position or rank, but behaviour and action (CoDH, 2018). This means that students can be leaders. After all, we are the future of the nursing profession.

By developing our leadership skills early, we will be more equipped to protect the wellbeing of people and improve their care experiences once we are registered nurses (NMC, 2018). Taylor and Webster- Henderson (2017) also highlight the importance of student leadership by recommending leadership be taught and integrated into nursing curricula to benefit those we care for.

Joining a university peer supported community allows the more senior students to foster their leadership skills through imparting their knowledge and supporting the lesser experienced student (essential skills of both a leader and as a mentor!). Students can act as role models by talking openly about their areas for improvement and displaying integrity- again, traits of a good leader (Taylor & Webster-Henderson, 2017).

The points above have discussed how acquiring leadership skills can benefit others, however, there are benefits for students too. Bowen (1997) recognises that a student can obtain improvements such as life enrichment, emotional awareness and moral development. Bowen (1997) continues by stating that students who participate in leadership training gains more skills than those who do not.

The CoDH Student Leadership Programme is in place to encourage students to act with courage and to professionally challenge the “it’s always been done that way” mindsets that, sadly, we are far too familiar with (CoDH, 2018).

Yes, students can be leaders. We only need to look at some of the amazing students that get nominated for awards every year. Or the students that are invited, or voted, to sit on various educational and trade union committees. Or the ones who are invited to speak at events about the role they played in advocacy or promoting mental health. Why? Because they found something that needed to be challenged or changed by using their leadership skills to help them.

You must not let anyone define your limits because of where you come from. Your only limit is your soul.” -Ratatouille, Walt Disney

I can’t be a leader because…. what if I fail?

As my research to dissipate my leadership excuses progressed, I could see a common theme underlying…. a fear that I might fail.

Brene Brown writes that failure is inevitable and that with every failure there is an opportunity to develop and come back better. Failure doesn’t need to be a negative thing.

Perhaps it’s time for me to give up the excuses, embrace failure and see my worth. Perhaps it’s time for me to be courageous and start being a damn good leader?

 “The only thing I know for sure after all of this research is that if you’re going to dare greatly, you’re going to get your ass kicked at some point. If you choose courage, you will absolutely know failure, disappointment, setback, even heartbreak. That’s why we call it courage. That’s why it’s so rare.”- Brene Brown


Thank you to Natalie Elliott for her contribution.

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