Learning With Spirit and Heart

What a joy it is to write about the treasure that is the American Organization of Nurse Executives’ (AONE’s) tradition of professional excellence. Although this entire issue of Nurse Leader celebrates AONE’s rich 50-year history, it is my honor to focus this column on just 1 aspect of AONE’s legacy: that is, AONE members’ unsurpassed passion for learning, growth, and support for one another.

To me, this quality of AONE’s culture is truly unique. My vantage point affords me the long view because I have had the privilege of working with AONE members for more than 3 decades. Also, my perspective may be unusual because my leadership development career has included health professionals that are not nurses.

I hold all health care professionals and their associations in high regard. But there is an undeniably special quality in AONE members’ approach to leadership growth. Hard as it is to accurately describe this “essence,” I want to try. I believe this spirit is truly unique and part of the “secret sauce” that elevates AONE and nurtures its members as they consistently demonstrate world class leadership.

Reflecting on AONE’s uniqueness led me in 2 directions: the first was an effort to identify the ingredients that are at the crux of the members’ unflagging mutual support. This task was richly enhanced by my conversations with one of AONE’s most respected and celebrated leaders: Rhonda Anderson, RN, DNSc(h), FACHE, FAAN.

As you read on, Rhonda and I both invite you to consider when you have experienced these qualities yourself. We begin with my “list,” which is followed and deepened by Rhonda’s perspective.

In my experience, AONE members are:

  1. Open and eager to grow. Despite the many challenges of implementing real change, AONE leaders repeatedly demonstrate a strong commitment to develop new leadership approaches and techniques, and they are equally dedicated to applying them. This is not easy. Nonetheless, AONE members are willing to approach old problems in new ways, learn from both their successes and failures, and maintain self-awareness along the way.
  1. Willing to be authentic, humble, and vulnerable. In learning settings, AONE members understand the need to be real with themselves and others. Deep learning about leadership comes from reflecting, sharing, practicing, and being respectfullychallenged. It comes from loosening our sometimes guarded professional demeanors so we can experiment and eventually forge new paths to better leadership with and for those around us.
  1. Appreciative of diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, points of view, and experience. Some of my most memorable learning with AONE colleagues has occurred in the pursuit of understanding differences and mining them for the wisdom they offer. Even when leaders have traveled very different paths and havearrived with widely divergent points of view, I have witnessed countless experiencesof thoughtful, sometimes prickly, but always genuine conversations about these differences. No matter what the tone, and without exception, these dialogues have led to greater mutual understanding and compassion for one another.
  1. Honoring of others who came before and those who will follow. Despite urging and rhetoric to the contrary, it can be difficult to value the traditions and continuing presence of our predecessors. It also can be tough to be patient with those who are less experienced. Whether we are older and “wizened” or fresher on the leadership path, I frequently witness genuine respect and openness to share and to hear the perspectives of different generations. Although staying open to listening and learning from elders and newer leaders can be taxing, time and again, AONE members rise to the occasion.
  1. Ready to nurture fellow members on the learning path with camaraderie and care. In learning situations, AONE members exude passion for the profession of nursing, and they are serious about embracing the requirements of leadership. Although this characteristic is the most difficult to describe, it may well be the most important distinction that AONE members bring to the “learning table.” I cannot think of a time in my 30-plus–year journey when AONE’s nurse leaders showed anything less than sincere care and support for one another, for their patients, and for their field.

As you read the following comments from Rhonda, it will be helpful to know that she received AONE’s Lifetime Achievement Award, one of the organization’s highest honors, and she served as AONE President in 1993 to 1994.

Here are her thoughts about the environment of learning that is so deeply embedded in AONE. “From the beginning of AONE, the ‘nursing service administrators’ were committed to creating a culture of learning, growth, and support for their colleagues! In my 40 years of nursing leadership, I experienced AONE to never waiver from this original focus.

“In adding to Cathy’s comments, I want to highlight 2 additional aspects I have experienced:

“1. Mentoring—AONE members have an amazing passion for supporting and mentoring each other. Encouraging others to assess their own talents, set professional career goals, and achieving those goals has been and continues to be an outcome of the cultural characteristics Cathy described. The exciting and unique aspect about this is that competitive boundaries and barriers are ‘left at the door,’ and each member truly is trying to help another. There also is no pretense about being the ‘elder statesman,’ so support comes from and for one another, no matter age or ‘status’ in the work setting!

“I have experienced such wonderful support from some new AONE nurse managers over the years. Many have said they would never have had that opportunity in other organizations that function as a hierarchical system. The respect and enthusiasm for each other and each person’s achievements are truly unique and are the foundation of the cultural principles lived by AONE members and supported by AONE staff.

“2. Focus on continuous improvement in leadership and our organization—as Cathy stated, the tradition of professional excellence is unsurpassed by other organizations. This creates a culture of appreciative inquiry and continuous improvement in leadership competencies and organizational design. In the first years of the organization and throughout its 50 years, AONE’s leadership criteria and competencies have been developed with the members and implemented in the members’ organizations. The support for each other as individual leaders encountered barriers at their ‘home organization’ gave each member strength and encouragement during their transition.

“As new leadership categories were added in AONE, fresh perspectives were introduced and encouraged by the board and staff through member dialogue and chapter meetings.

“The respect for diverse opinions, creative and innovative ideas, and the invitation for all members to contribute their talents and professional wisdom creates an exciting culture of infectious inclusion!”

Rhonda and I invite you to appreciate all that is unique about AONE, and we especially encourage you to partake and to savor AONE’s many opportunities to grow your own leadership in AONE’s rich learning climate. It is truly exceptional.

* This article was originally published in Nurse Leader.

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