Learning to Lead Through Experience

Sep 12, 2012, 11:52 AM, Posted by Lindsey Cardwell

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Human Capital Blog is asking diverse experts: What is and isn’t working in health professions education today, and what changes are needed to prepare a high-functioning health and health care workforce that can meet the country’s current and emerging needs? Today’s post is by Lindsey J. Cardwell, MSN, RN, clinical educator in the Professional Development Department at Centra Health in Lynchburg, Virginia and co-lead of the Virginia Action Coalition’s Leadership Workgroup.

I am passionate about the importance of nurses being involved in their professional organizations and contributing to the evolution of the profession of nursing and the nation’s health care delivery system.

The Institute of Medicine’s 2010 report, The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health, affirmed that nurses must be prepared to serve as leaders at the bedside and in the boardroom. It said that nurses have the expertise to reform our health care system and we must ensure that they feel confident in their ability to contribute to this change.

The Virginia Action Coalition’s Leadership Workgroup is working with Virginia schools of nursing to ensure that leadership development is incorporated throughout nursing curricula and to identify the best practices for teaching nurses how to lead. The University of Virginia School of Nursing has utilized one of our country’s innovative leadership development programs, the National Student Nurses Association’s Leadership University (Leadership U), to develop student nurse leaders through experiential learning.

The National Student Nurses Association (NSNA) provides the hands-on learner with a leadership development program that allows them to engage and experience leadership in a way that most nursing courses do not. This program has been developed to be offered as a nursing elective and student nurses earn credit for the course by participating as a leader in professional nursing associations, health care related initiatives, and community platforms. The NSNA provides nursing schools with a competency profile for future nurse leaders and models for earning credit through legislative advocacy, community projects, and involvement in the association.

The University of Virginia offers this course as an elective to all undergraduate nursing students and has found that it enhances the leadership abilities of their students. As a student nurse, I had the opportunity to participate in the University of Virginia Leadership U elective and I credit this course with creating the foundation of my leadership and professional skills. I was recruited to enroll in this course during my first nursing clinical by Carol Lynn Maxwell-Thompson, RN, MSN, FNP-BC, assistant professor of nursing at the University of Virginia and coordinator of the University’s Leadership U program.

The program encouraged me to find my niche in nursing and to explore the various professional roles nurses hold. One of the first activities I completed for credit for this course was to attend the annual conference of the Virginia Nursing Students’ Association (VNSA). At this conference I began to learn the importance of professional development and involvement. With the encouragement of Maxwell-Thompson, I ran for and was elected to my first professional association position on the VNSA Board of Directors. I earned credit toward my course for serving in this position, but I also developed my management, interpersonal, communication, and financial skills at the same time.

This course helped me refine my leadership skills in multiple settings: teaching CPR to nursing students and community members, advocating for state funding for nursing education in a meeting with Virginia Governor Tim Kaine at the Virginia General Assembly, fundraising to provide health services in South Africa through Nursing Students Without Borders, and attending the NSNA Annual Conferences. This course taught me a broader skill set than I could comprehend at the time and introduced me to nursing leaders in our professional associations across the country. The networking, mentorship, and leadership development I participated in during this course prepared me to advocate for my patients at the bedside, opened doors that eventually led me to serve on the board of the Virginia Nurses Association as a new graduate Registered Nurse and provided many other leadership opportunities.

The NSNA’s Leadership U program and its implementation at the University of Virginia are examples of best practices in nursing leadership development. I encourage all state Action Coalitions to learn more about this program and how we can promote it as a best practice in nursing education – and all student nurses to look into opportunities to participate in their own communities.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.