Mentors Can Help Young Nurses Grow into Leaders

May 14, 2014, 9:00 AM, Posted by Chelsea Savage

National Nurses Week just ended, but several nurses are continuing the conversation, blogging about the reasons they aspire to leadership. Chelsea Savage, RN, MSHA, CPHRM, is a professional liability investigator at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center in Richmond, Va., and was recognized in 2011 as a young nursing leader by the Virginia Action Coalition.

Like many nursing advocates, I internalized my interest in social justice through my personal history. I was raised by a single mother on welfare, and my childhood had the added stress of an educational disadvantage. My mother, motivated by strong religiosity and the isolation from society characteristic of this construct, took me out of school in sixth grade and forced me into a passive homeschool process. I was given curricula, but not a teacher, so I taught myself and passed the General Educational Development test, better known as the GED, at 15.

I was introduced to nursing while volunteering at a hospital for two–and-half years and pursued an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) for a year at age 16. Later, though, I dropped out of the ADN program. At 26, then a step-mom of three and a biological mom of one, I went back and earned my nursing degree.

Having said goodbye to my cultish upbringing, I was now driven by an insatiable curiosity and felt limitless educational potential. I went on to pursue a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, a graduate degree in health administration, and a fellowship in health law. I am now earning my doctorate in nursing practice (DNP) and am seen by some as a nursing leader.

I have never pursued leadership for its own sake. Many nurses become accidental leaders; leadership traits, in other words, are manifest in their day-to-day choices of advocacy for their patients or their profession.

Leaders happen because they can’t do things halfway. Leaders happen because they are willing to take risks and try new things. Leaders happen because they care and therefore act. Leaders happen even when they feel defeated but are compelled to keep on going. These are all innate responses to leadership; the question is how are nurses uniquely qualified to lead? I love the quote by A. Falk-Rafael: “Nurses, who practice at the intersection of public policy and personal lives, are, therefore ideally situated and morally obligated to include political advocacy and efforts to influence health policy in their practice.”

The quote above begins to address why it is important for nurses to hold positions of leadership in health care and society at large. Nursing literature addressing leadership in political advocacy shows decades of calls to action and declarations of moral obligation mandating nurses to act. The sense one gets is that nursing leadership in health reform and society at large is held back only by a deliberate unwillingness of nurses to lead. I posit that this is not the case. Mandates are not the answer; mentorship is.

I was introduced to advocacy through my mentors. I was asked to lead a legislative committee of a statewide professional organization. Before this experience, I had no concept of what a professional nursing organization does. I was ignorant of policy at the community, state, and federal levels. I had no interest in what legislation was passed and rarely tuned into the news. I was a single mother and my energy was focused on trying to keep my head above water.

I was still driven by curiosity, though, so I said “Yes,” even though I had no idea what the job entailed. What followed was a tour through the world of health care and nursing and health policy advocacy. Through the guidance of my mentors and working from a professional association platform, we found out what was important to nursing in our state each year.

We fought to raise nursing faculty salaries to break up the bottleneck of available spots in nursing school; we championed measures to ban smoking in bars and restaurants; and we met with policy-makers and campaign managers to make sure nurses had a voice at the state level.

For my work in advocacy with professional nursing associations, the Virginia Action Coalition named me one of the state’s top “40 under 40” nursing leaders. My interest in leadership has since spread to advocacy outside of the association arena; in 2012, I organized nurses to educate the public about the Affordable Care Act. This experience, and my opposition to measures that I felt would harm the health of women, were part of my growth as an individual nurse, advocate, and leader.

Nursing leadership cannot be mandated, but it can be encouraged. If we want nurses to advance to positions of leadership in health care and society at large, we need deliberate purposive mentorship. Nurses have what it takes; they just need mentors to validate their leadership potential and show them the way.

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