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Leading the way: Compass letters provide guidance for nurse


When I was a young nurse, I defined “leader” as a prestigious role for great people. To be a leader, I thought, one must possess qualities that would define greatness, such as intelligence, an authoritative manner, eloquence of speech and the ability to wear designer suits with flair.

As I gained experience, my definition of the term evolved. I began to recognize leadership is about facilitating achievement of a common goal. I have worked with many types of leaders in the past 15 years and observed their strengths and weaknesses. My perspective on leadership changed when I realized effective leadership is not about me, but rather the achievements of those I lead. A leader is influential, highly organized and outcome-driven.

Leading others means sharing the journey so all may reach the destination. It is not survival of the fittest. And it is not easy. Instead, the journey involves taking many turns, navigating detours and resolving distractions.

As a staff educator focusing on ambulatory care nursing, it seemed clear I needed a reliable guide to assist me in helping others reach their common goals. A compass seemed the perfect tool.

When I hold a compass in my hand, I see N-E-S-W around the dial. But to me those letters mean something entirely different than the inventor intended; they stand for the four qualities a leader must possess: Nurture, Excellence, Strength and Wisdom.

Nurture: Leaders nurture their teams with compassion and a deep understanding of reality. Moving in the direction of compassionate leadership means mistakes are seen as opportunities. Mistakes often are a result of complex systemwide problems. Approaching problems with a compassionate attitude helps avoid jumping to conclusions.

To nurture with compassion means the leader listens before speaking and carefully considers a situation before acting. In return, the team remains motivated to finish the journey.

Nurturing team members also has to be balanced with the three other “directions.” A leader who mistakes nurturing as a reason to let team members perform below the standard of care is not providing the guidance required for patient- and family-centered care.

Excellence: Nurses who continually strive for excellence naturally will advance their professional practice. Without excellence, any goal might work, but with excellence, patients, families and healthcare systems benefit. The most effective leaders demonstrate their commitment to excellence every day, and when they fall short, they take responsibility for problems and failures.

A leader who is moving in the direction of excellence knows the power of walking the walk along the journey. Yet balance is required to be a fully developed leader. To achieve excellence and maintain the focus on the destination, the three other interconnecting qualities act as balancing and supporting factors.

Strength: When a leader accepts a job, the journey begins. Everyone is tested when working to achieve a difficult goal. The journey to a safe and effective nursing unit, free of hospital-acquired infections, uncivil behavior and other common problems, means encountering many distractions. Mental, emotional and spiritual strength are required to overcome the inevitable detours, wrong turns and other delays.

While stress is every leader’s enemy, strength can beat it. Strength brings out persistence, perseverance and resiliency, which later build courage and the feeling of mastery. A leader always is willing to take on new journeys that lead to success.

A leader who is overly strong or aggressive often fails to listen to others and fails to heed warning signs that the team has taken a wrong turn. Strength at its best is balanced by a commitment to excellence and the ability to nurture others — and the remaining compass direction.

Wisdom: In leadership, knowledge and wisdom are not always the same. A knowledgeable leader has an understanding of the latest information about a topic, expertise in complex legal issues and other issues and skill in managing limited financial resources.

A wise leader knows how to balance the interconnected needs of a complex organization and communicate a shared vision. A wise leader recognizes the signs of trouble ahead and takes the necessary steps to clear the path for the team.

When a leader spends too much time considering alternatives, and not making a decision, the team will struggle to keep moving forward. Wise leaders make the best choices they can, given the situation, and rely on the team to move a project forward. Wisdom must lead to action. Without action, nothing can be achieved.

As I finish one journey and begin the next, I rely on my compass and the four “directions.” When I lose my way, I go back to these four essential attributes and find my way again. •


About Author

Christine Yalong, RN, BSN, is a staff educator at Kaiser Permanente West Los Angeles Medical Center.
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