"Stick Your Butt Out!"

Sep 30, 2011, 1:52 PM, Posted by Emily Haozous

Emily Haozous, PhD, RN, is an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico College of Nursing and a newly named Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Nurse Faculty Scholar.

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How often are we gathered with a group of accomplished colleagues, yelling in all seriousness the very practical instruction to stick your butt out? More to the point, how often is our very success determined by our ability to heed this call, despite all natural instinct and conditioned training to the contrary? On September 20, 2011, the 2011 - 2014 cohort of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Nurse Faculty Scholars found ourselves against a towering rock wall on day one of the Outward Bound Professional Leadership Program, trying desperately to stick our butts out as we climbed a 20-foot rock face, testing physical and mental boundaries. As our new friends and fellow Scholars cheered us on, each person stuck their safely harnessed butt high in the air and climbed that wall. One after the other, it was butt out, hands and feet on the wall—and trust.

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As a cohort, Nurse Faculty Scholars (NFSs) are more than competent when it comes to writing, grantsmanship, teaching, clinical practice, and navigating the academic world while juggling a panoply of needs, expectations and pressures. In my own professional development, I’ve rarely been given the unique opportunity to safely explore leadership and team-building in a setting away from my university. Last week we met at the first Leadership Meeting for our cohort in Charlotte, North Carolina. In the 24 hours at the hotel, we received a rapid-fire briefing on the NFS program, instructions on the intent of the program and our role as scholars, and a faster-than-humanly-possible overview of our Meyers-Briggs and DiSC personality profiles. Then we were saying goodbye to our mentors and filing into two white Outward Bound vans and on to the deepest, darkest depths of the Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina.

My natural temptation is to maintain the status quo, or to compete within much defined guidelines. I like to know what the rules are, and how I’m going to accomplish what I need to do within those parameters. In the weeks before traveling to North Carolina, I had a million questions. Would I have access to vegan meals? Were we going to be backpacking the entire time? Would we have the opportunity to shower every day? Would our facilitators be harsh and unforgiving taskmasters with difficult to understand accents?

As the amount of readily available information was disturbingly scant, my fantasy imagined Outward Bound was an endurance event in which there were no showers, long death marches, foraged food for meals and demanding, militaristic facilitators. As my husband says, if you set your expectations low, everything is a pleasant surprise.

Thankfully, I was more than pleasantly surprised throughout the experience. Although I had imagined that personal growth would come from challenging environmental conditions and unwashed hair, my growth emerged through a natural progression from a series of leadership exercises and fear-smashing physical accomplishments.

As we progressed through the program, my biggest lesson came from watching the facilitators manage the group. It became clear to me that leadership isn’t always about taking control and doing the task, but rather about giving concise instructions and allowing a team to take ownership, developing through collaborative work.

Throughout the week, our cohort worked our way through teamwork and leadership exercises, with a generous dose of reflection and discussion. We always chose to take on tasks as a group, and we were considerate of all opinions. Although several members of the group couldn’t participate in the more athletic activities, we did what we could to include them, because their role as observers was just as important as my role as actor. Even when it was pouring rain and each scholar was deep in their own terror/exhilaration/challenge, we were a collective, always supportive and encouraging. And when the time came to help Dr. Campbell [Jacquelyn Campbell, PhD, RN, FAAN, Program Director for the RWJF Nurse Faculty Scholar program] scale a 40-foot telephone pole so she could take a ride on the mother of all rope swings, we did it as a team.

Did I mention that it rained almost the entire time?

Other lessons learned:

  • Coping mechanisms developed while walking a wobbling wet wooden log suspended 40 feet in the air may not apply to daily life.
  • Sometimes water falling from the sky is not rain.
  • Meyers Briggs personality traits are not the same things as personality disorders.
  • There are rules to the game, but that doesn’t mean anyone knows the rules—so proceed with caution.
  • Take risks and help others take risks along with you. Even when actual risk is low, perceived risk will dictate actions.
  • There is a fine line between good leadership and passive aggression.
  • Perhaps most importantly: Whether scaling a rock face or approaching any new challenge, sometimes you’re best served by sticking your butt out.

As a new Nurse Faculty Scholar, I am delighted, scared, intimidated, motivated, validated and excited. The opportunity to develop as a leader and researcher within the program is a valuable and unique experience to build myself professionally and personally with an unbelievable safety net. I am blessed with the opportunity to participate in this program, and I am enthusiastic to conduct the research project I proposed. My research examines cancer disparities in American Indians and Alaska Natives, and my project for the Nurse Faculty Scholar program will look at the relationship between digital storytelling and medical mistrust while teaching about cancer prevention.

I see this program as a keystone to my development as a nursing leader, and an important step in meeting my personal mission to conduct health research that represents the needs of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

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