A Lesson in Leadership—Inspiration Ignites Motivation

Dec 23, 2013, 9:00 AM, Posted by

Cheryl L. Woods Giscombé, PhD, RN, PMHNP, is an assistant professor in the School of Nursing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Nurse Faculty Scholar. Her research focuses on stress-related health behaviors, psychoneuroendocrine biomarkers, and sociocultural contextual factors that contribute to health disparities in African Americans.

file Woods Giscombé and Wakefield

On a cold, yet hopeful early spring day in Washington, D.C.,  my life as I knew it was about to change.  A world of possibilities—of seemingly unlimited potential—opened up for me as never before . . . This was the day that I met Mary Wakefield, PhD, RN, a true nursing trailblazer.

The moment that I met her for the first time, I knew that I wanted to learn more. My immediate impression was that she was a dynamo—intelligent, spunky, energetic, warm, engaging, and confident. As I listened to her presentation during a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation leadership seminar, my job as a Nurse Faculty Scholar was to better understand the essentials of exceptional leadership. My goal was to become more familiar with the professional and personal characteristics that facilitate effective changes in health policy, particularly for underserved individuals. She made those tasks amazingly easy, because she embodied the highest ideals of a leader—a nursing leader. I was more than inspired.  

file Woods Giscombé

Dr. Wakefield expounded upon how she transitioned from being one of the nation’s leaders for improving rural health outcomes to chief administrator of the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). HRSA is the primary federal agency that manages programs to improve access to health care services for individuals who are underserved, medically vulnerable, or uninsured. After her talk, I mustered up the nerve to ask her just one question: “Do you allow people to shadow you?” And I could only halfway believe it when I heard her say, “Yes!”

I would soon have the opportunity to learn more about Dr. Wakefield’s courageous leadership and commitment to our nation’s health.

On June 11, 2013, I set off on my highly anticipated trip to 5600 Fishers Lane in Rockville, Maryland to spend the day observing the work of Dr. Wakefield. I was greeted by one of her assistants and quickly oriented to the building and to Dr. Wakefield’s morning routine. I was graciously greeted, and for the entire day I was a welcomed guest. I was offered mentorship and words of encouragement.

Just as I had expected, Dr. Wakefield and her staff were extremely well organized. I am not sure if there is any other way to successfully conduct work that involves managing a budget of $8.4 billion or carrying out HRSA’s mission to “improve health and achieve health equity through access to quality services, a skilled health workforce and innovative programs.” I witnessed the flow of teamwork and the importance of routine checks and balances for the successful execution of the simplest tasks.

Dr. Wakefield seemed masterful in her ability to manifest a strong and clear, yet compassionate and even-tempered, leadership style. I observed how her physical posture, confidence, and treatment of others commanded respect, but how she also maintained a down-to-earth demeanor which enhanced her approachability.

I have no doubt that her early career experiences in nursing facilitated the development of her expertise in diplomacy, attention to detail, and team-building fundamentals, as well as her ability to prioritize action steps to achieve large and small goals. Witnessing all of this provided me with a higher standard of excellence—a standard I now aim to achieve.

One of the highlights of the day involved an opportunity to meet with several of the amazing nursing leaders at HRSA, including leaders from the United States Public Health Commissioned Corps. Each of them took the time to share their professional journeys with me—from moments in their early nursing careers to their leadership roles at HRSA. Each demonstrated a sincere and clear desire to support and encourage early career nurse professionals. They each encouraged me to share my knowledge and experience with colleagues who have interests in conducting work that aligns with HRSA’s mission. It was clear that they saw themselves as true public servants—they aim to provide resources for vulnerable populations as well as assistance to health professionals and researchers whose work will benefit vulnerable and underserved groups.

Although words may never capture the richness and value of my experience, I can attempt to use seven to articulate the major leadership lessons that I learned from my day with Dr. Wakefield and her staff:  integrity, preparation, organization, accountability, graciousness, confidence, and generosity. The nursing leaders I met were not too busy to share their knowledge with me—a researcher, practitioner, and an aspiring leader in health care. Their words and their living examples of tenacity and courage permanently filled me with motivation and inspiration.

The saying goes, “once you know, you can never go back.” After a day of learning about leadership with Dr. Wakefield and her staff at HRSA, I am obligated to do all that I can to move their agenda, and my agenda, forward to reduce health disparities in this country and ensure that every person has access to high quality care.

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